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Life lessons for making stuff up

There's a constriction in my throat and slight palpitations in my chest, but no fear, it's just the gentle simmer of nerves. For better or worse, this coming Thursday and Friday I am participating in Hilarity for Charity's ‘Improvised Comedy Cup Match show'. A totally made-up theatre performance based on audience suggestions.

While logically I agree the idea of going on stage with no script, no props and no costumes seems slightly verging on insanity, but for the past two years I have been doing improvised theatre classes and practice lead by show organiser and director of Improv Bermuda, Toby Butterfield, and improv veteran, Chris Dye. The experience is, at the very least, liberating and is invariably a ton of fun. I'm not much of a hobbyist but improv is my treasured escape — my welcomed weekly dose of silly, play and good belly-laughs.

From a coaching perspective, I am also aware how the fundamentals of Improv provide valuable tools and reflections for ordinary life.

What Improvising has shown me:

1. The good stuff lies outside your comfort zone — if two years ago you'd asked if I'd stand up and sing a made-up song on the spot, in front of an audience, I'd have said I'd rather peel my own skin off … And it's not something that happened overnight.

In any situation, leaping out of our comfort zones is terrifying. But a simple two-step shuffle, stretching its edges little by little, expanding our zone over time will get us to the same place. Those things we once felt were “impossible” “not me” “I couldn't” (public speaking, making a bold career move, expressing yourself etc) are suddenly not only possible but achievable.

2. “Yes and …” - in a scene, if a player approaches saying “in my hand I've got the key to Tutankhamun's tomb” and you reply “your hand is empty and besides, that tomb's already been excavated” … the scene isn't likely to go very far. However, if you accept someone's idea and take the opportunity to build on it, there are endless possibilities of where it may take you (mummies, flying carpet rides, launching a camel trading business, to name a few).

In life, while every idea may not get actualised or be a winner, saying ‘no' shuts down everything (and everyone) before the possibilities have even been explored. Who knows what feasible new ideas or options may spin off from a suggestion? My coach once shared the idea, “never say no to a potential yes” and I find it a useful reminder for keeping an open mind.

3. Make the other person look good — a great lesson in team dynamics. There is no room for divas in improv. One person only playing for the laughs, trying to force their ideas can undermine their fellow players and leave them standing on stage like numpties. Compelling theatre is watching interactions as ideas grow and develop. If everyone is putting the group and the scene first, and contributing their unique input, great work can unfold and the whole team shines.

4. Start strong — starting a scene works best with a clear strong idea (called an ‘offer') from one of the team. The stronger the choice, the more there is to work with and the faster the story can progress.

For example

A: What is it?

B: I don't know?

A: What shall we do with it?


A: There's a baby crocodile in that box!

B: Great, my new pet has arrived!

In goal-setting, business, relationships, whatever our pursuit, being wishy-washy and non-committal can lead to vague results. “Whatever you do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius and power and magic in it.”- Goethe.

5. Flexibility wins — on stage the goal is to create a good scene, but when the invisible chicken you've been plucking suddenly get's turned into a double bass in a Scat Band by another player … do you grind it all to a halt and say, “Hey, I was on a farm!” or go with the flow and see where this new idea takes you?

Being adaptable and able to change tack quickly, while still keeping your end goal the target, is the way to “win”. Digging our heels in and convincing ourselves there is only one way to do things, we run the risk of getting stuck, fixated on our ‘plan' and can end up missing what it is we originally set out to achieve.

6. Listen Up — unless we're really listening and paying attention to our fellow players the scene lacks continuity, sense, and some really great opportunities and offers can get missed. Listening is the key to great communication.

7. Get out of your head and trust yourself — in improv, over-thinking and concerns like, ‘I've got to get this perfect', or ‘What will they think of me?' only hinder our ability to come up with ideas or responses.

These thoughts are equally stifling and unproductive in the real world. There is incredible power in being ‘present' in body and mind, and accepting what ‘is' at any given moment. Trusting our abilities and having faith that we can handle whatever comes our way allows us to approach challenges calmly with all our resources to find an appropriate way forward.

8. Celebrate mistakes — in our very first class, Toby taught us a valuable tool. Whenever it goes belly-up, a scene suffers a fizzling death, or we choke and wish a black hole would swallow us up … rather than slink back to our seats, clutching our shame, berating ourselves for being terrible improvisers, instead throw your arms up in the air like a trapeze artist who's just nailed a quadruple-front-exchange-double-back-flip with a round-off, and shout, “Woo-Hoo!”

And let it go … Try it sometime.

This could have been a list of 20, if I'd had room. The last and possibly greatest would have been 20. The Importance of Having Fun — giving ourselves the space and freedom to let go, be silly, make mistakes, say the first thing that comes to mind, and PLAY can help us release that repressed energy that builds up from the many areas of life we feel we can't do this, and taps into and acknowledges the valid, expressive child in us all.

Perhaps you'll choose to try it for yourself. Toby Butterfield runs recreational classes and also Applied Improvisation events for the workplace in team building and leadership development (www.facebook.com/improvbermuda). Or come and support the show and its two benefiting charities, August 22 and 23 at Daylesford Theatre (www.express.bm). I'll be there, gently simmering, my comfort zone stretched taut, my first time improvising in front of an audience. Woo-Hoo!

Julia Pitt is a trained Success Coach and certified NLP practitioner with Benedict Associates Ltd. Telephone (441) 295-2070 or visitwww.juliapittcoaching.com for further information.

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Published August 20, 2013 at 9:00 am (Updated August 19, 2013 at 6:23 pm)

Life lessons for making stuff up

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