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How to 'Improv' Your Way Through Life

Using the tenets of improvisational comedy to help you succeed

By Chuck Otto

Improv made me a better person.

Credit: Adobe Stock

By that, I mean the study of improvisational performance — and I’m only stretching the truth a little bit.

When I moved to Chicago from my hometown of Detroit at 30, I looked forward to immersing myself in the city’s cultural scene. I was particularly excited about becoming a regular audience member at The Second City Theater, an international mecca for improvisational comedy. I was even more excited about taking improv classes there. What surprised me was how the fundamental lessons of improvisational performance eventually figured into my world view and day-to-day life.

The Improv HQ

For the uninitiated, Second City (and its predecessor, The Compass Players) has been the launching pad for generations of actors, writers, comedians and directors since the 1950s. Its alumni include everyone from Mike Nichols and Elaine May in the early Compass days, to Joan Rivers, Ed Asner, Gilda Radner, Stephen Colbert and many more too numerous to mention. TV shows (notably Saturday Night Live) and film producers regularly scout and recruit talent from Second City, and it remains the foundation for Chicago’s thriving improv community.

I began my journey as one of the few students over 30 in my Improv 101 class, but that didn’t dampen my enthusiasm. The buzz of being in that theater and hanging out with fellow improv nerds, even if it meant being the old(er) man in the class, was more than worth it.

Learning to Say 'Yes, And...'

I quickly discovered that there were actual lessons to learn — that one didn’t just suddenly step into the spotlight and deliver a priceless moment of high comedy. Improv is a team exercise, and I was one among many who endured an instructor’s verbal smackdown whenever we placed our egos above the needs of the scene and our fellow performers.

At Second City, as in the world of improv in general, the No. 1 Rule is “Yes, And...” Conversely, “No, But...” is strong discouraged. The reason is simple: “Yes, And...” confirms the validity of whatever precedes it, while “No, But...” denies it and often kills the momentum of an improvised scene.

The classic example: You say, “Well, here we are in Spain.” Then I say, “No, we’re not. We’re in Idaho.” I may get a cheap laugh, but I’ve also undermined you as my stage partner and placed my trustworthiness in question. Trust is key when you’re working without a net, on a bare stage with maybe a chair, a willing partner or two and the thread an idea.

In those days, Second City had three class levels — it has since added many more specialty courses and seminars — and I blazed through them all in quick succession. I then hit the improv comedy class circuit, seeking every opportunity to learn, hang with the improv nerds and perform whenever and wherever possible, no easy feat in a city filled with aspiring actors, writers and comics. I wisely kept my day job as a PR guy.

My travels eventually brought me to the ImprovOlympic (now iO) and the legendary improv guru Del Close — mentor to John Belushi, Bill Murray, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and countless others. Close was a fierce advocate for “Truth in Comedy,” (not coincidentally the title of an improv manual he co-wrote) which meant that every moment on stage, no matter how bizarre, had to contain some element of truth. He drove his students to focus on intuitive thinking, listening skills, continuity, characterization, and, most importantly, teamwork.

Close suffered no fools: To make him laugh was a genuine delight, while any false note onstage earned his unfiltered rage, and it was not pretty. Having experienced both ends of the Del Close continuum, I much preferred the delight.


Applying What I Learned in Improv

My improv experiences took place in the 1980s and early '90s, and after a few years, that interest ran its course. My journey had taken me through stage shows, a few comedy videos and a small, non-speaking role in a John Goodman film. I’d seen several talented classmates graduate from the Second City mainstage to sitcoms, films and, more recently, TV shows including Mad Men and Veep. In my case, Saturday Night Live never called. Life moved on.

But the lessons I’d learned from Second City and Del Close remained.

I began using those lessons to train high-profile PR clients in the basics of good communication for media interviews: Pay attention. Speak up when it’s your turn, surrender the floor when it’s not. Don’t deny the reality of the moment. Be Present.

My experience with character work helped me create an array of press personalities that my clients would likely encounter on multi-city media tours. I put them through their paces in mock interviews with a collection of chatty, oddball, egocentric and/or clueless reporters. Laughs shared, lessons learned.

I wasn’t the first “genius” to figure out that improv has wider implications beyond the stage. Several enterprising companies, including Second City itself, are finding success with an “improv for business” curriculum designed to help corporations develop strong work teams and expand creative thinking. (As Next Avenue has written, Second City is now using improv to help caregivers get better at what they do.)

I eventually realized improv’s lessons are applicable to anyone in any stage of life, whether your “audience” is a condo association subcommittee, your softball team or the person across the table. These eight simple rules of engagement are often lost in a world of tweets and multi-tasking, but they still work and I've compiled them here:

8 Great Improv Life Lessons

  1. Always work at the top of your intelligence. Avoid clichés and lazy thinking.
  2. Think "Yes, And..." instead of "No, But..." Negativity and denial slow or stop your momentum.
  3. Know when to make yourself the center of attention, and when to give it to someone else.
  4. Don't be afraid to fail; it’s the effort that counts.
  5. Live in the moment; respond to what's happening now.
  6. In any conversation, focus on listening to what the other person is saying instead of what you want to say next.
  7. Serve the needs of your partner, team or the situation, rather than your ego.
  8. Do your best, learn from your mistakes and move on.
Chuck Otto is a writer/editor and public relations professional who specializes in corporate social responsibility and sustainable business practices. He lives and works in Grand Rapids, Mich. Read More
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