Are you ready to tap into an unending stream of creativity for your business, blog, or third thing that also begins with a ‘B’? The same skills improv comedians use onstage can help.
Unlike stand-up comedy that’s written, rehearsed and performed by a solo comedian – improv comedy is created by an ensemble, entirely on the spot, right in front of the audience. You may not have your own ensemble (or the same massive need for strangers’ approval that I do), but here are three improv performance techniques you can use to squeeze out more creative juice.
1. SAY ‘YES!’ TO YOURSELF!
Agreement is king in improvisation. Multiple actors = Multiple ideas driven by multiple egos. Even if the characters argue, the actors must agree. Are we brothers in a coffee shop? Fancy ladies in a park? The audience doesn’t want to watch actors negotiate – they just want us to be Fancy Ladies!
How many of your ideas never flourish because they don’t make it out of your head? That voice inside that says “NO”, “HARD”, or “DUMB” – that is your internal editor. Turn them off. Better yet, slit their throat and silence them forever. (Too graphic? Apologies. My internal editor’s been dead a long time.) With that nagging voice shut down, now you can get to work.
Write out all of your ideas. Not just the reasonable ideas – ALL of them. Even the dumb ones. No, ESPECIALLY THE DUMB ONES! There’s a reason you’re an entrepreneur and not wasting your genius in a boardroom. Dream up a thing or two that’s too unwieldy to implement. We aren’t making decisions yet – we’re creating. SAY ‘YES’ TO YOUR OWN IDEAS!
2. TAKE IT FURTHER!
In improvisation, the companion to ‘Yes!’ is always ‘And…’. ‘Yes!’ gets us on the same page, but ‘And…’ gets us to the end of the chapter. When I bring my dumb idea to the stage, I rely on my performance partners to agree (Yes!) and then add something (And…) to make me seem brilliant.
To harness this for yourself, simply look at all of the ideas to which you have already said ‘YES’ in STEP 1, and then make them work. (I know, “is that all?” Stick with me…) There are a million reasons why they won’t work. So? Focus on a million (I will settle for one) ways in which they can work. Say “What if…?” a lot. Be open to new avenues and different arenas. Velcro, Superglue and even pacemakers were all invented by frustrated scientists who were trying to create something else entirely. This entire essay began as a recipe for Chicken ala King. Your idea is often merely a starting point.
“Just because something doesn’t do what you planned it to do doesn’t mean it’s useless.”- Thomas Alva Edison
3. KEEP IT SIMPLE.
Improv comedians strive for an honest emotional core in our comedy – characters and ideas that resonate and draw the audience in. I don’t have to travel to Mars in a unicorn-drawn carriage to entertain someone. The audience will not care about my comedy if they cannot relate in some way.
Who cares if your idea has been done before? I’ll pay cash money for your take on it. Chickens were around a long time before Colonel Sanders gave us his delicious version. Keep it simple and tell your truth. Especially if that truth is Original Recipe™ with a side of slaw…Yum!
“The merit of originality is not novelty; it is sincerity.” – Thomas Carlyle
Improv innovator Del Close admonished improv comedians to exalt each other and their choices on stage. Start doing the same for yourself. Don’t think you’re creative? You are. Start thinking that you are. Then know that you are. Then just…BE.
“If we treat each other as if we are geniuses, poets, and artists, we have a better chance of becoming that onstage.” – Del Close
You won’t implement most ideas. Ideas you do implement won’t always succeed. (Be thankful it isn’t happening in front of a demanding, semi-drunk audience.) But ideas you dismiss before they wriggle out of your brain have no chance whatsoever. Don’t say ‘NO’ until you’ve said ‘YES’. Further your own ideas. Keep it simple.
“My posse’s in effect and we’re doin’ the do
And we got more rhymes than your damn crew” - Beastie Boys, Posse in Effect
I have a posse. Why are you laughing? My posse is beautiful. For the purposes of this entry, “posse” isn’t my friends. It’s the people I interact with frequently. More specifically, the ones that enable me to do what I do; my dry cleaner, my bartender, my hairstylist (hate that word, but trust me – she ain’t no barber. Haircutress?), etc. So, my posse is…people I’m paying for goods and services? Well, yeah. At first glance. But the difference is in my attitude toward them. I’ve made them an important part of what I do. They are my posse. My business partners. My Team.
Figo owns three Devrim Cleaners locations. He keeps my shirts crisp, my suits sharp, and he’s fun to chat with. I’m sure he and his family provide personalized service to all of their customers. But when Figo is tailoring my suit, it’s not just A suit. He’s tailoring JAY’S suit. That’s an important difference.
Joe mixes some amazing cocktails. He makes me a cherry coke (cherrys + grenadine + whatever high fructose Coca-Cola approximate they sell) to get me fired up at the start of a long night of comedy. Joe makes devastatingly good margaritas to mellow me out at the end of a long day of #Hustle. I tip well, he pours heavily, and we both benefit.
Stevie has cut my hair for ten years. She’s had to listen to stories about every single time I have vomited in public, yet she still takes personal pride in sending me out into the greater world looking my best.
“Got my hand in my pocket and my finger’s on the trigger
My posse’s gettin’ big and my posse’s gettin’ bigger” – Beastie Boys, The New Style
With the birth of our son 3 years ago, my posse has exploded. We have a pediatrician, preschool teachers, and a cabal of ultra-capable babysitters. All people who I trust fully (or mostly) with my son’s health and well being. Without them I couldn’t leave the house to make the funny without worrying about the little guy. And trust me, my son is always on my mind – so my posse allows me to leave with secure, happy thoughts.
In comedy improvisation, we put a strong emphasis on creating relationships on stage. A scene in which two strangers meet and haggle over the price of a taco can be the most excruciatingly unfunny thing in the world. But two characters who know each other, sharing their lives and opinions and philosophies while *not* discussing that taco? That will be at least interesting, with strong potential for hilarious.
Because I’ve made these people an important part of my ability to create comedy professionally, I’m interacting with members of my team; my co-conspirators in world domination. Because of them, I can be in front of an audience or workshop and feel confident about looking competent. That makes my job a lot easier. And all I had to do was focus a little time and energy on creating basic relationships with my goods and services providers. My POSSE.
Follow the path of the unsafe, independent thinker. Expose your ideas to the dangers of controversy. Speak your mind and fear less the label of ‘crackpot’ than the stigma of conformity. And on issues that seem important to you, stand up and be counted at any cost.
Seriously, just go.
Yes, going first has been scary since the dawn of time. Do you think
that prehistoric fish was all juiced about getting out of the water
and flopping around on land? Probably terrified the little guy. But
you’re more evolved than a prehistoric fish, aren’t you?
Growing up, I always wanted to go last, especially in gym class. By
studying my fellow students diving, jumping rope or (God forbid)
square dancing, I figured I could learn from their mistakes. Turns
out, you learn best by making your own mistakes.
“The longer you wait, the more the jump rope
becomes a big steel cable.”
- Susan Messing
Our brains have the amazing capacity to turn any mole hill into Mount
Everest. As we sit and stare and ponder, the world goes by and we
accomplish nothing. It’s like waiting for that perfect moment to kiss
a girl. You won’t know it’s the perfect moment until she’s kissing
In the improv world, we sometimes fall into the trap of being polite.
We want to create scenes together, so we stare at each other and wait
for the other person to make a move. Empires rise and fall in the
time it takes an improviser to initiate. Your improv heroes just
start anywhere. It’s the reaction to that first line that usually
sets the tone of the scene. But your scene can’t start until somebody
Fear stops many voyages before they begin. Halfway across the
Atlantic, Columbus was probably conjuring every worst-case scenario
imaginable. But he had a crew behind him. So do you. You have
family and friends. You have teammates. Most importantly, you have
yourself. What’s the last time you made a fatal error? You’re still
breathing. Trust that your brain and body will work to continue that.
Thomas Edison tested more than 6,000 different filaments before he
found the right material to make a light bulb. Would you be willing
to do something 6,000 times before you got it “right”?
Take a running leap.
Kiss the girl.
Pull the trigger.
And if it doesn’t work out, dust yourself off and go again. Battle
scars are cool! And you only fail when you don’t try.
- Ben Bowman
Ben Bowman is an award-winning filmmaker, director and improviser
living in Chicago. He’s the author of the Boiling Point Improv Blog.
He wants to be Han Solo when he grows up. You can follow him on Twitter @BowmanInc.
“No great thing is created suddenly”
“Don’t bring a cathedral into a scene. Bring a brick; let’s build together”
- Del Close
I bristle at the characterization of improvisation as getting on stage and “just making shit up.” But, understandably, I’m often asked how we “rehearse” for improvisation. It’s simple – we connect with each other and then make ourselves open to the whole wide world. Conduits.
Below are some photos from a recent rehearsal with a live band. It was a lot of fun.
Our chief want is someone who will inspire us to be what we know we could be.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson