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.
“The key skill of the innovator is error recovery not failure avoidance.”
- RANDY NELSON, Pixar
“Do not fear mistakes. You will know failure. Continue to reach out.”
- BENJAMIN FRANKLIN, America
Genius, in the popular conception, is inextricably tied up with precocity—doing something truly creative, we’re inclined to think, requires the freshness and exuberance and energy of youth. Orson Welles made his masterpiece, “Citizen Kane,” at twenty-five. But then there was Alfred Hitchcock, who made “Dial M for Murder,” “Rear Window,” “To Catch a Thief,” “The Trouble with Harry,” “Vertigo,” “North by Northwest,” and “Psycho”—one of the greatest runs by a director in history—between his fifty-fourth and sixty-first birthdays.
The above is from Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker article Late Bloomers. He references and is inspired by David Galenson’s study “Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity.” Galenson cites Picasso (young genius) and Cézanne (old master) as examples at either end of the spectrum. Gladwell summarizes,
Prodigies like Picasso, Galenson argues, rarely engage in that kind of open-ended exploration. They tend to be “conceptual,” Galenson says, in the sense that they start with a clear idea of where they want to go, and then they execute it. The great English art critic Roger Fry wrote, “More happily endowed and more integral personalities have been able to express themselves harmoniously from the very first. But such rich, complex, and conflicting natures as Cézanne’s require a long period of fermentation.” Cézanne was trying something so elusive that he couldn’t master it until he’d spent decades practicing.
If I may add to this a less generous observation from my experience – people with early success simply stop learning. Not trying, just learning. Young hot-shots develop ego and expectations. When the hype subsides and reality and expectation don’t match up…they’ve peaked. It takes a massive amount of self-awareness and humility to start strong, enjoy success, and continue to be an humble student of your craft.
Did you start strong? Do you want to finish that way? Young Genius? Old Master? DO BOTH! Keep paddling even when the current is already pushing you along. Grab some momentum for when it’s not.
Do you consider yourself a life-long learner? Was there a particular pursuit or ‘Ah-ha Moment’ that started you on that path? Comment below & let me know!
“NO” is such an easy thing to say. It’s safe. NO keeps you out of trouble and protects you if an idea doesn’t fly. Saying YES, however, leads to work. And then more work. Have you ever offered an idea only be told, “Sounds like you just volunteered yourself, buddy?” In performance improv comedy NO is the enemy. Why? Because nothing happens. It is, at best, stagnation. Entropy. Improv training reinforces that it is okay for the character to say NO if the actor pushes them along anyway. Into the uncomfortable, the painful, the unknown. YES! Always moving forward. Like a shark.
Even more insidious than “NO”, however, is the withering death of EH, MAYBE… On stage it might be the simple failure of the improviser to make choices. Failure to react with real emotion. Failure to take the Red Pill because they are waiting for a better offer. None of which are as blatant as NO. In the corporate environment you might recognize it as YES, BUT… Because outright NO is so negative. And we’re all positive people, right? Accepting of others ideas? Certainly not an impedance – the “problem person.” So we say YES WITH CAVEATS (which is really NO without actually saying NO) until the seeds of good ideas are left to sizzle in the sun. And no one cares to plant any more. We could all use some fertile soil. On stage. In business. In life. A Culture of YES!
Some will cling tightly to their NO and argue that it is an important failsafe. That if you can find reasons to say NO, then the idea must not be good. NO keeps the garbage out and the best ideas will always rise to the top. Wrong.
In a Culture of NO it is the least objectionable ideas that rise to the top.
“Least objectionable” is not the same thing as “the best.” Far from it.
“So, Jay, I just hand over the keys to the castle to any kook with a half-baked notion?” NO! (See what I did there?) Ideas are not decisions. But you must give ideas a chance to grow before you make a decision. Nurture and explore them. Heighten them. In improv comedy it is the philosophy of YES, AND! Agreement and addition. What you bring to the table is great. Always. And since that is a holy truth, what if we added ‘X’ to that idea? Not all ideas will make the cut in the end. But, now we can make a decision about what is the best of several ideas that have been explored and expanded (cuddled, snuggled, rubbed up and down). See what you did there? You’ve begun to create a Culture of YES!
“I love the recklessness of faith. First you leap and then you grow wings.”
“Fall, then figure out what to do on the way down.”
These are just quotes without action. Have you ever taken a leap (large or small) and hoped a parachute would appear? Did it? Or did you crash? Share in the Comments below…
“Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.”
“The merit of originality is not novelty; it is sincerity.”
There have been many, but these are the five I will always remember…fondly?
5. Actually showing up for an audition held the evening of September 11, 2001.
4. Playing a clearly dramatic cold reading for laughs. It worked: they laughed! It didn’t work: I was not hired.
3. After gesturing to my wristwatch in a Shakespearean audition monologue for the hip-hop/Shakespeare hybrid The Bombi-tty of Errors, the director said, “They didn’t have watches back then.” My reply? “They didn’t have turntables either!” Burn? Not hired!
2. Hovering over the auditors table and asking, “Did I get it?” I clearly did not get it.
1. The director told us the improv scenario was “You guys are a band.” I loudly replied, “YOU’RE a band!” Why would I do that?
Ahhhh…mistakes. They’re part of our growth process. And when you get some distance between yourself and them, you can even look back and laugh. Right? (Hahahahaaaa…) I hope I’ve put my self-destructive streak far behind me. But without those gaffs I wouldn’t be the well-oiled machine (settle down, ladies) that I am today. You can recover. As proof, the company for which I auditioned in #1 hired me the very next year. The year I flipped off the auditors and my fellow auditioners from the stage. Why would I do that?
A man’s errors are his portals of discovery. – James Joyce
I am sure there are more/worse that I’ve blocked from my memory. What are your worst social and/or business boners? Dare to share? Let’s have a laugh and experience some catharsis together.
“Any poet, if he is to survive beyond his twenty-fifth year, must alter; he must seek new literary influences; he will have different emotions to express.”
- T.S. Eliot
I’ve been a skateboarder for 25 years!
Apologies for the exclamation point, but I didn’t realize exactly how long until I typed it. Skateboarding is a blast to do and (because I am old as hell and my knees ache always) it’s a blast being a spectator, too. Watching Tony Hawk rock a 900 degree spin 6 feet above the vertical lip of a halfpipe is AWESOME! Why? Because he might crash. What? We don’t want him to slam (do we?). But without knowing that’s one possible outcome – why would we care? And why would Tony care? Utter collapse is possible, or he’d be bored and unconcerned with the innovation. So, too, it is with improv comedy.
The essential part of creativity is not being afraid to fail.
For the improviser, product and process are intertwined. The audience is watching the creation as it happens. No edits. No rewrites. “Nowhere to run to, baby. Nowhere to hiiiide.” It’s a big part of why it is fun to watch. It’s every reason why it’s fun to do. When the wind of creativity blows through a theater and lifts an improv show off the stage and into the stratosphere, improvisers and audience are sharing something transcendent. But what makes those successes possible is that failure is always lurking. And really great improvisers are flirting with it.
Improvisers, by definition, take risks and make mistakes, lots of them, but that’s what leads them in fresh directions.
- NYTimes.com, On Improv for Business
As an improv instructor, I encourage my students to embrace “Playing to Lose.” Tony Hawk blasting a 900 in competition is precisely “Playing to Lose.” He didn’t need that trick to win. And bailing might have caused him to lose. But he wasn’t there to win, necessarily. He was there to win in incredible fashion, or not at all. Any group of good improvisers can knock out a good improv show on a regular basis. But to create the unforgettable, live, in front of a paying audience? You have got to risk losing a few teeth. And so, too, it is with anything that requires you to create.
The trouble in America is not that we are making too many mistakes, but that we are making too few.
Failure is inevitable.
It will happen. At least leave room for it. Even better, make it a part of your process. GO BIG OR GO HOME! Flirt with disaster if you want big results. Wreck on purpose? Nope. Abandon all caution and common sense? Nope. But, if failure’s going to happen anyway…fail with your foot on the gas pedal instead of the brake.