Sunday, July 17, 2011

What Improv Class Taught me About Life & Work


As a former Midwesterner, living in the south has always been a challenge. Grasping the mild-mannered, southern way of doing things had always eluded me. It wasn’t as simple as being sure that you said the requisite “yes ma’am” or added a “Ms.” or “Mr.” in front of a person’s first name. There was so much more to it and the best way I can describe what makes you successful is using the art of “polite disagreement.”

In the Midwest, practicing “polite disagreement” would probably not allow you to achieve your intended result and people might even consider you a pushover. In fact, it wouldn’t matter whether you were negotiating who’s turn it was for the swing on the playground or determining what approach to take for launching a public relations campaign for a Fortune 500 company, the end result would probably leave you high and dry (and in the case of the playground scenario, maybe even beat up).

Bottom line, you always had to stand-up for yourself, tell them what you want and make it happen on your timeline. This approach worked well for years. People around me had always been impressed with my “get it done attitude,” but in the south I became known as a “bull in a china shop.” It was a label that I hated. No matter how hard I tried to change my approach in my interactions with friends, coworkers, etc. it always came up short. Regardless of this, I had a successful career, but I started to hit my own “glass ceiling” of sorts, until I came across Village Theatre, a small local improv theatre. I know it sounds a bit cheesy, but bare with me.

I have always been a fan of improv and was thrilled to find a theatre with such a talented cast, not to mention one with a BYOB policy*. In my mind, there are few things better in life then cheap theatre, cheap drinks and cheap laughs.

It was during a performance that I had attended with some friends that one of the cast members mentioned an upcoming intro to improv class they were offering. After a few drinks and a couple of good laughs, I announced to my friends that I was going to do it. Adding this to my list of “well it seemed like a good idea at the time, “ when I woke up the next morning, I couldn’t help but chuckle. But since I rarely, well pretty much never, say I am going to do something and not go through with it, I pressed on and signed-up.

It was a long 12 + weeks of classes and even though the class only met weekly for 2 hours, I dragged myself to those classes after a long day of work. But once I got there, it seemed as though magic would happen. I realized along with learning the basics of improv, I was also learning a key nugget of wisdom.

Over the course of the classes, I began to understand and learn how to practice “polite disagreement.” Probably one of the most basic concepts of improv is the “yes and” approach. The idea being that when you are doing a scene with another person, you never negate what they are saying. Instead you embrace their idea and build on it. In doing this, it doesn’t mean that you can’t refocus the skit in a direction you would like it to move, but it shows the person and those watching that you are working together. So in the end you might not get what you want right away, but with some patience you could get there and leave the person you were dealing with in a good place too. Eureka!

As I worked to hone this concept, after class each week I would try to use it at work and at home. The results were immediate and amazing. All of a sudden, projects that I was having a difficulty with because of a lack of consensus were moving forward and I think my family even noticed a change.

Last night, my Level 1 improv class came to an end with a graduation show (my class did a pretty awesome job I might add). As we wrapped up that show and I stepped out on the stage for the last time, I was so proud of what I had done and so happy to be on a new path with so many possibilities. I can’t wait to see what happens in Level 2!

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