Around 20 years ago I did a course in comedy improvisation. At the time I was running a queer women’s theatre company in London, UK and producing small festivals of plays by new writers. After the course, I started running my own classes and soon we had thirty regular improvisers, which led to a three-week run in an off-West End theatre. I was hooked!
I continued to run workshops for women and children, moving onto zoom during lockdown. I also created a touring troupe, comprising four improvisers, a musical director and myself compering and producing the event. We ran for sixteen years and performed at festivals and venues up and down the country.
WHAT IS IMPROVISATION?
The format typically follows a host getting ideas from the audience, for the improvisers to create comedy scenes and songs. The group are often accompanied by a pianist who can scene-paint a musical scape as appropriate.
Short-form improvisation involves games such as World’s Worst. The audience is asked for a profession and the improvisers create a mini scene to demonstrate their character’s qualities for being the worst person to do that job. For example, if the choice was firefighter one improviser may pretend to be a pyromaniac child saying they want to be a firefighter when they grow up. Another improviser may pretend to be a human made of paper. It is all about “show, don’t tell.” The scene must unfold, with clues weaved in, rather than being obvious from the start. And there is the freedom to be a human, animal, or inanimate object, whatever flows!
Long-form improvisation involves creating entire plays or musicals after being given a made-up title, the location, and character briefs. Everything from there is created by the performers.
When I started my training at Radiant Coaches Academy I quickly realised the parallels between the skills I had learnt as an improviser and the qualities required for coaching. I now teach Improvisation for Coaches courses for Radiant. We explore how improvisation games can improve not only our coaching, but also the coaching container, and can even be used as exercises with our clients.
ACCEPT AND BUILD
The first rule improvisers learn is to Accept and Build. If your scene partner indicates they are holding a watermelon, and you respond that it is not a watermelon, it is a bloated apple, then it may get a laugh from the audience, but it has not progressed the scene. If the response is that it is indeed a watermelon (accept) and how amazing that it is see-through (build) then the scene can grow as you extol the virtues of a transparent watermelon, perhaps even playing out the famous scene from Dirty Dancing! You are not Blocking the scene, you are Building. What an amazing metaphor for life, because blocking takes psychic energy that can be better repurposed for bringing in new adventures. As coaches we embrace this sentiment, to help us be the best coaches we can, and we can enable our clients to do the same.
I love talking about replacing But for And. This rule is a variation of Accept and Build, with a softer approach. When you hear your client using But, then you may want to feed that back, and ask how it would feel to exchange But for And. For example, one client was telling me: “They told me they loved me, but they cheated on me.” When the sentence becomes, “They told me they loved me, and they cheated on me,” the implied interrelationship between both sentences is separated. This allows the client to see them as distinct thoughts, They told me they loved me (fact 1), and, They cheated on me (fact 2). From here, the client can give autonomy to each sentence, and gain more overall clarity.
LIVING IN THE NOW
When improvising you cannot be anywhere else but in the moment! It is true mindfulness. You are tuned in on every level to your scene partner(s). The synergy is beautiful, and the shared vulnerability brings improvisers closer together, and provides a great foundation for building mutual trust. Building trust is a huge part of the coach/client dynamic. As a holistic coach, I understand the importance of focusing on mind, body, and spirit. To nourish these connections, I bring in daily mindfulness practices, including yoga, journaling, and meditation. Many of my clients seek coaching to commit to their own practices. Having an accountability partner who can tease out the best kinds of practices that they are most likely to stick to, will lock in new routines.
LISTENING TO HEAR
We speak at around 125 words per minute, and we can listen at the speed of around 400 words per minute. So, we speak slower than we listen, proved by the fact that many of us listen to podcasts sped up. This creates a 275 words per minute gap, where we can easily drift off, focus on a particular word or part of the story that resonates, pre-empt what they are going to say next, prepare what we are going to say. All of this can take us away from Full Attention listening. It can be useful to frame our communication as: I listen with the intention of using what you give me. This is true for improvisers and coaches alike.
FREEDOM TO “FAIL”
There is no such thing as failure or “getting it wrong” in improvisation. Even if you forget the basic rules, all improvisers believe the scene went the way it was supposed to go. Yes we can do things differently next time, but the past stays in the past. And isn’t this what we instil in our clients? We help them work on where thy are at now, without judgement, and where they want to get to. Similarly, a coaching session may not go the way you intended. However, if we accept what happened, we open the door to growth. In improvisation, and in life, it feels healthy to embrace mistakes as opportunities.
The best improvised scenes are where we see the players working together. There is no ego, even in the face of one character having a higher status you know they have equal right to be in the scene. In fact, there is a rule in improvisation around that says, Make the other person look good! By focusing outwards, it makes the scene more collaborative and less ego-driven. This is paramount in a coaching container too, we are there for their clients, we notice when our egos want to ask the Perfect Question or put a neat Bow on the end of the session so we feel magnanimous. And if this happens, we move back into a collaborative space, with the focus on walking alongside our clients, instead of leading them.
For you. If you want a short improvisation exercise that invites playfulness, unhooks you from rules, promotes creativity, and allows flow, try this. Look around the room and point at objects while labelling them. BUT the label must be something they are not. Do not think about it, just point at a chair and call it a cat, point at the floor and call it a lamp shade.
For your group. How about an improvisation exercise for the start of a workshop to set a fun tone, and bring the group together? Ask everyone to say their names and where they live (two easy questions to help them build up their confidence for speaking in the group). Then ask them to say how they are feeling but describe it as: What animal are you, and why? This allows them to ground themselves in their feelings, bring in joy, and add a small amount of vulnerability which allows for the group to begin bonding. You could also ask this question to your client at the start of a session!
What skills have you gained from a previous job or hobby that you now use in your coaching? Share below.