Managment Skills and Improv Theater

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(This essay is a piece I wrote for my Improv Theater class. It is not complete, because in the usual crunch before quarter's end I did not find the time I wanted to spend on it. However, I believe it is good enough to be interesting, so I'm putting it out here, hoping I'll be able to return to it at some future point in time.)

1 Introduction

Improv Theater is theater that is being improvised: No script guides the actors; they purely play of each other. During the Winter quarter of 2002/2003 I took an Improv class at Stanford's drama department. I partly did this to relax from my cerebral business school classes, but I was also curious about how Improv Theater could improve my management skills. This is not an absurd idea: Various Improv groups such as Improv Asylum in Boston or Bay Area Theater Sports in San Francisco regularly hold private workshops for corporations large and small, suggesting that Improv can help teamwork and creativity in organizations. This essay then is my analysis of what Improv can do for business in general and managers in particular. Obviously, having taken only one 3-unit class, this remains a personal account, and the conclusions may differ for other students.

I first attempt to analyze Improv Theater with respect to the skills it develops in actors. I then discuss the emergent effects that come from the application of these skills in Improv scenes and what Improv theory, as presented in Johnstone's book IMPRO has to say about it. Then, I will relate these Improv skills and the underlying theory with my experiences in project work in business settings. A primary conclusion for me is that I see some evidence that supports the claims of the aforementioned Improv groups. More importantly, however, I believe that many of the skills trained in Improv help make better crisis managers.

2 Improv Skills and Exercises

Acting out Improv, in my observation, is based on a set of basic skills and a set of composite skills. The composite skills are more than just the sum of the basic skills: As usual, what's emerging from a composition is more interesting than the composition's individual parts. But let's first focus on the basic skills.

A basic skill is a skill that single-mindedly focusses on one task, perception, property of the actor. A basic skill is not necessarily simple; it can be quite challenging. I have observed the following probably not exhaustive list of basic skills that we trained and used in class:

  • Accepting gifts (saying Yes!). Saying Yes! is the willingness of an actor to accept and develop further what is offered by another actor. Fundamental to Improv, this skill helps you develop scences and carry them forward. The opposite of accepting gifts is blocking, or, rejecting gifts. Some blocks are obvious, like saying no or rejecting what another actor just offered you.
Other blocks are more difficult to recognize; I think the only means of determining a block is the audience's gut feeling whether some behavior fit the scene or not. One example that I still wonder about is the imaginary cup of water a Simps player poured over a judge after a supposed unjust score. My gut feeling is telling me that this was a block because the status relationship necessary for theater sports to work was not maintained.

Examples of exercises that specifically train this skill are Gift Giving and Park Bench.

  • Being spontaneous and unintimidated. When doing Improv, an actor has to free his or her mind from the "standard operating procedure", that is, the trained behavior that serves as a gatekeeper to everything we do or say and whose purpose is to make sure we appear sane and sound to fellow humans. You need to be able to respond at the spur of a moment to what you are being offered and carry it forward. The good news is that you don't need to be original. Still, what you do or say needs to tie in with what you were being offered. Moreover, long pauses of thinking are detrimental to an enjoyable (and believable) scene.

Thus, being spontaneous and unintimidated requires substantial training, even (or the more so) if this training means peeling away layer of layer of learned behavior to unlock our inner child's playfulness.

Also, being spontaneous and unintimidated is a skill that requires a safe setting and preparation. Preparation can mean simple warmup games or "silly" games like Big Booty.

Examples of exercises that train spontaneity are plenty. These include the Ball Games, the Firing Line, and Dinner Party.

  • Being focussed on what you are doing. It is essential to Improv that an actor be focussed on what is going on. Only this way, can you create a good offer or catch one and respond to move a scene forward. As obvious as this may sound, I found it quite difficult at times, as my mind likes to roam freely. Being here and now rather than elsewhere is probably the biggest challenges for the academically trained brain.

All exercises that require active participation train this skill. Those exercise that drive you close to overload probably train this skill more than others.

Examples again are the Firing Line and multiple Ball Games.

  • Creating and maintaining space objects. Space objects are imaginary objects that serve as props in a scene next to the few real props that actors use. You need to be able to imagine a space object and detail its appearance. Moreover, you need to maintain the space object and pay attention to it, even if you put it aside for a moment. Being a lumberjack that just cut a tree and now is joined by other lumberjack's to sing Monty Python's lumberjack song will not be very convincing if you are dancing straight through the imaginary tree you just cut.

Gift Giving in a Shoe Box is an exercise in which you create a space object. Regular scene work involves space objects that a good Improv actor observes, independently of whether the space object is in active duty or not.

  • Attention to what's going on around you. On a more abstract level than maintaining space objects, an Improv actor must not only focus on what he or she is doing, but must also maintain peripheral vision.

Multiple ball games train this well.

  • Acting well. An Improv actor must also be a good actor. This may seem like a no-brainer, but isn't. In fact, I'm not even sure this is an important skill. Somewhat to my dismay, I felt that many scenes we played or saw at the BATS' and Simps' shows were over the top, and therefore not acted out as if the scene was for real. But maybe I'm missing a point here.

Next to generally practicing scenes, some of the more focussed exercises that seem to focus on training our acting skills are It's Tuesday and Been Waiting Long?

  • Playing with and of each other (shared control). An Improv actor needs to be a superb observer of his or her fellow actors. There are at least two main reasons for this: You need to sync up with the other actors to keep the scene moving, and you need to be able to convert unconscious hints from your peers into a new surprising offer.

I believe the distinction between keeping the scene moving and making a surprising offer is a subtle but important one: With keeping the scene moving I mean what is developing between you and the other actors in an obvious way. Everyone can "see" why a scene develops the way it does based on what has just been said or done.

With surprising offer I mean a non-obvious yet satisfying offer based on one actor's reading of the other players. We continuously throw each other subtle and unconscious hints until one person pulls them into the open and starts a surprising turn. These unconscious hints are important, because in an Improv scene there is not enough time to seek hints or advice from the outside. Whatever sparks your creative thought, it has to come from inside the scene.

Most scene work trains these skills in one way or another. Specialized exercises include Speaking in One Voice and Please the King.

  • Memory and finishing (narrative skills). Johnstone likens Improv to running backwards: You don't know what will come, but you have an overview of what you did so far. The challenge in developing and finishing a satisfying scene then is to tie it all together at the end, so that the audience experiences a conclusion or anything that makes sense and signals an episode is over. As a consequence, you need to be able to remember what has happened in a scene and you need to be able to tie it all together in the end.

Exercises that train this skill are Instant Story and Three Things.

Many exercises train several skills. For example, Gift Giving trains both working with space objects as well spontaneity when unwrapping the gift and discovering what's in it.

A composite skill is a skill that is based on at least two other skills, basic or composite. The reason for calling such a skill a composite skill is to emphasize that mastery of the composite skill does not automatically follow from having mastered the component skills. Therefore, composite skills need dedicated exercises and have interesting properties of their own beyond their component skills.

  • Being in the flow. An actor, as soon as he starts participating in a scene, needs to focus on what he is primarily doing next to being attentive to what else is going on. If I'm an Indiana Jones actor fighting an enemy I need to focus on this fight as much as I need to be aware of a space object tree getting in my way.

One exercise that focusses on the combination of these two basic skills is multiple ball games going on at once. The challenge increases with the number of balls in play: An actor catching a ball and passing it on still needs to recognize that another ball may already be waiting for him. I specifically mention this exercise, because I will return to it later when I talk about Improv's relationship with crisis management.

Since a composite skill, by my definition, is a skill composed from other skills, the number of composite skills is substantially larger than the number of basic skills (2 to the power of the number of basic skills). As discussed, some may not have a specific synergy that warrants calling them a composite skill, however, many do. They are difficult to name and catch-all phrases like playfulness do only limited justice. I therefore postpone the discussion.

3 Managerial Skills and Improv

First, I would like to focus on the claim of Improv Asylum and Bay Area Theater Sports that experience with Improv Theater helps teamwork and creativity in organizations. After this, I turn to a different insight for which I believe a stronger case can be made than for teamwork and creativity alone: that Improv makes for better crisis managers.

3.1 Teamwork and creativity

Improv is fiercely egalitarian and removes hurdles to self-expression yet makes sure that everything flows towards a larger goal that is achieved jointly by members of a group. Thus, the group acts as a team.

  • Skills like Playing With and of Each Other clearly increase a person's capabality to interact with other people and work in a team.
  • Moreover, Playing of Each Other heightens awareness and willingness to help others in weak situations and thereby supports team spirit.
  • Increased Spontaneity skills and the willingness of Accepting Gifts allow for better creative sessions and brainstorming activities.

All of these skills are relevant in teamwork and Improv clearly trains these skills. Yet, it is possible to train these skills independently of Improv Theater. Personally, I feel the case for Improv helping teamwork is recognizable but weak. There is no larger gain from the overall Improv experience that is immediately relevant to teamwork. I believe this is different for crisis situations.

3.2 Crisis management

Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary defines a crisis to be "an unstable or crucial time or state of affairs in which a decisive change is impending; especially: one with the distinct possibility of a highly undesirable outcome." Crisis management is consequently the management of a crisis, presumably with the goal of avoiding the undesirable outcome.

The definition given above leaves the time frame open, but I believe that many crises, if not most, are compressed in time. Thus, managers and generally those in the crisis have little time to think and to carefully analyze decisions and their impact. A high degree of uncertainty remains.

Moreover, you cannot solve a crisis in advance, because you never know how exactly chaos will strike. To say it with Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower words: "Plans are worthless, but planning is essential." The best you can do to prepare for a crisis is to have patterns of possible solutions, and instantiate the pattern in a given crisis situation.

Improv, in my understanding, is about taking a specific pattern, for example a type of scene, and matching it to a specific situation and its context. Improvisers find their way through the myriads of possible developments that can follow from a few initial constraints. Moreover, proper playing of each other in a scene introduces new twists and turns that are unpredictable yet can be dealt with effectively by a trained team of improvisers.

A crisis manager is a manager who has the responsibility of handling a crisis. His or her team usually consists of highly skilled individuals. If the team is small enough so that direct communication is the preferred mode of communication, most effective crisis management teams are egalitarian. The responsible manager may have the final word, but such decisions are usually the result of the group's collaboration.

Here then, crisis management and Improv meet. The crisis manager, but then every group member, needs to be acutely aware of what is going on, because crucial information that is ignored can make or break the success of the team. In crisis management, thinking and acting are constrained to a limited time window with limited visibility, much like in Improv. People need to be comfortable with each other and with dealing with uncertainty.

In my opinion, almost all Improv skills are relevant for crisis management. Only those specifically related to acting seem to be less relevant. Crisis managers and team members must be able

  • to accept each others input as a relevant contribution, because everyone is a skilled contributor
  • to think creatively and on their feet given the compressed time
  • to focus on the task yet have peripheral vision so not to miss other developments
  • to play of each other, because a key ingredient of creativity is misunderstanding each other
  • to finish strong and drive a case to conclusion

This matches the Improv skills discussed above, and I contend that crisis managers and team members can benefit greately from Improv training.

4 Conclusions

After a review of the skills taught in the Improv Theater class I've been taking in the Winter quarter of the academic year 2002/2003 at Stanford's Drama department, I discuss whether they are useful for management as well. I conclude that Improv has a lot to offer to management and teamwork. Specificially, I believe that crisis management requires skills similar to those of experienced Improv actors.

While these conclusions are based on only a limited understanding of Improv Theater (about as much as you can fit into a quarter), and because much of this essay was fueled by a late-night bottle of red wine, I suggest a careful and more detailed review of the hypothesis at a later point of time.

Nevertheless, I suggest that a crisis manager can benefit substantially from taking Improv classes.

Copyright (©) 2007 Dirk Riehle. Some rights reserved. (Creative Commons License BY-NC-SA.) Original Web Location: