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.
8PM. Time to go to work.
I’ll make a few mistakes tonight. I always do. “The master weaver incorporated the mistakes of his students into a larger pattern.”
A pair of Master Weavers. I get to work with awesome people.
Time to head home. At least I got to wear sneakers tonight.
Late night cut-ups & hiccups. Nonstop hustle. All for the love of the game.
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.
Social media (Vimeo, Twitter, Facebook, and my new personal favorite - Untappd) and the proliferation of portable consumer electronics are changing how & when we interact with each other, so it stands to reason that We, The Consumer demand greater, more personal interaction from the entities who want our business. I suspect things will continue in that direction until ApplePixarCyberdyne, Inc. implants entertainment microchips in our brain. At which point, I hope, there is a serious consumer backlash.
What is the inside of your mind like? Mine is like the Minotaur’s labyrinth (NERD ALERT!) - lots of twists, turns, and sudden dead ends. When I met my wife 13 years ago I was awake all night, asleep all day, and often ate popcorn as a meal. I was having a blast getting nowhere! What a mess. That was a young, self-employed me left to my own devices. I was improvising for audiences nightly but hadn’t learned to apply those skills to other areas of my life.
We all have the drum major instinct. We all want to be important, to surpass others, to achieve distinction, to lead the parade…. And the great issue of life is to harness the drum major instinct. It is a good instinct if you don’t distort it and pervert it.
Don’t give it up. Keep feeling the need for being important. Keep feeling the need for being first. But I want you to be the first in love. I want you to be the first in moral excellence. I want you to be the first in generosity.
- Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
From Two Is the Magic Number - A New Science of Creativity, the introductory article in a series about creative pairs on Slate.com:
It’s common sense that babies and mothers affect each other. But when you stop the tape and look at it frame by frame—as the researcher Beatrice Beebe and her team did in this experiment—you see how remarkably fast the exchange takes place, down to fractions of a second. It’s not that a baby waits for stimulus from her mother and responds in kind. Actually, as the psychologist Susan Vaughan puts it, “both parties are processing an ongoing stream of stimuli and responding while the stimulation is still occurring.”
I have never read a better description of what is happening between improvisers on stage than that. Boiled to it’s essence, good improvisation is nothing but ongoing stimulus and response. The words that you, the audience, hear spoken are only a fraction of the communication happening when comedy is created live, on the spot.
Communication – effective communication – is an ongoing, total body, 360° process.
To be effective you must be
- Clear with…
- Engaged in…
- Responsible for…
For mere talent to, as the Slate article puts it, “explode into innovation, discovery, and brilliance” you must collaborate. To collaborate you must communicate – and verbal is only a portion of that.