Saturday, September 19, 2015

I Can't Sell Improv

I am lousy at self-promotion.  Although my father was a salesman the gene didn’t get passed on.  I’d be hard pressed to deliver a brochure promising all kinds of benefits if you study or work with me.  I can’t do it, because I have no idea what an individual may actually get out of the study of improv with me.  This is why the final exam paper in my Stanford University undergraduate class was always an open question.  Please write as much as you need to answer:  “What I learned in Drama 103.”   I still have a whole file cabinet full of these essays.  They dazzle me.  But “what do you want them to learn?” might be a fair question.  I hope you won’t think it a cop out when I reply:  “What they learn is up to them.”  Improv is a kind of mirror for what’s going on in a life.  If you are controlling and critical or if you are fair-minded and generous improv will highlight this. 
I’ve been teaching this stuff for over 30 years.   And while my home base is the University classroom, over these decades I’ve also taught workshops and seminars for a wide and diverse group of clients.  Many of these have been in educational venues or for educators (think school administrators) as well as business groups. My corporate clients have included a smattering of the Silicon Valley giant businesses including Apple, Google, Adobe Systems, Sun Microsystem Japan Division as well as think tanks like the Woods Institute,  IDEO, the Packard Foundation and the Banff Centre for Leadership Studies and the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance.
At the risk of sounding arrogant I won’t work for anyone who requires an outline or summation of what the workshop will cover in advance. I’m sorry, improv isn’t like this.  If you want me to teach improvisation, I too must be improvising and modeling the behavior I am trying to impart.  You will just have to trust me.
 Some clients expect that you will deliver “a product” that is definable, measurable and accountable.  And, given how corporations work I suppose this is a reasonable expectation.  Shouldn’t I be able to tell those who hire me what their employees will learn or be able to demonstrate after spending X hours under my guidance?  I can’t do this honestly.  If I do I feel like a snake oil salesman. What I can talk about is my purpose in leading the class, for example I might say: “I’ll be working to create a climate in which the players will feel safe enough to try new things in public.”
I have no idea how to measure creativity, although If I could find a reliable way I’d likely make a fortune.  What seems creative to me may well differ from your observation or definition.  The time honored phrase: “Thinking outside the box” is just the opposite of what I advise.  “Look at the obvious with new eyes or new appreciation,” I suggest.
What brought me to this riff is the issue of “debriefing.”  This is a time honored part of the profile of nearly any seminar or workshop.  According to the Business Bible on high the final 30-40 minutes of any training event must be spent reprising what has been presented and discussing its meaning to the group or to the individual.  In a nutshell a skilled presenter should:
1.     Tell you what he’s going to tell you.
2.     Tell you the information itself.
3.     Tell you what he told you.
In this workshop we are going to study and learn A, B,and C.  Here is A.  Here is B.  Here is C.  And now, to debrief, what we learned was A, B, C.  Got it?  Good.
I suppose this system of information transfer is suitable for some things.  It’s also what we’ve come to expect when we attend trainings.  Usually the content is accompanied by a Power Point with bullet points about A, B and C and their subtopics.  Sometimes if you’re lucky there are also graphics or cartoons to illustrate A or B or C.  (or all three).
An improv class is different.  I like to step into a room with a group of people not knowing what is going to happen.  Then I lead them to try things and we see what happens.  We notice lots of things:  what our partner did or said, for example.  We observe what is happening and what needs to happen and make adjustments. We practice letting go of outcomes or expectations. If we screw up or make a mistake we notice that too, and capitalize on it, if possible.  We might even celebrate this with a whooping cheer of TA-DA!!!
I am not opposed to reflection. It’s just that the time honored notion of formal debriefing just doesn’t fit with this work/play.  Spend those twenty minutes playing another game. 

Patricia Ryan Madson        September 19, 2015
Published also on LinkedIn

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