I was given 90 minutes to do something fun and creative at a Spittoon tour event in Chengdu, China. It could be about anything! And I was delightfully overwhelmed with possibility. So, I listened to the words of a mentor: “let’s do nothing and then take a break.” The event was not for another month, so I planned to do a lot of nothing until then.
After many walks along the river during my lunch breaks, I finally turned on to an idea for the event: Improv Storytelling. It married two of my favorite things in the world and something I personally wanted to know more about. It made me nervous and feverishly eager. As a long time student of improvisation and storytelling, I believe in their potential to inspire youthfulness and affect positive change in people.
The following week during an open mic night, I met Olaf who happened to come from the world of comedy and improvisation. We instantly clicked, and I invited him to co-lead the Spittoon night with me. Our basic intention was to play improv games, grasp its principles and then apply them to storytelling. We expected maybe a small group.
On the night of the event, it was a wonderful turnout with a crowd of around 30 people. There were a few who knew about improv and most people just seemed curious. For those who were not familiar I clarified some terms.
Firstly, improvisation means performing without preparation. Great actors, musicians, dancers use it to tap their inner wisdom and the group genius of their teams. It’s an out-of-ego experience. It’s where we rest our intellect and create something together in the moment. And it’s something we all do to some extent.
For example, imagine running down a flight of stairs. You don’t calculate every step in that fast pace. If we did that we’d tumble down the steps. Instead, we trust our instincts and let the body act in a flow of movement that turns up effortlessly. The brain is wired for safety, and our job is to let it work and trust the process. In other words, be present.
I once met a pianist who was on his way to play at the world-famous Carnegie Hall in New York. I asked him, “When are your moments of magic when you’re performing?” He paused and said, “when I get out of my own way.” This is common sense for great artists because they know the best they can do is let the work come through and let it come first.
While it’s not about preparation, improv does have core principles that set us up for success:
Be in the moment
There is nothing outside of this moment and that is magical because this is when we are truly listening. Simply being present is a catalyst for conversation. When we get out of our heads, even briefly, new ideas have a chance to sprout.
Pixar has now released a score of hit-films that people love. Their magic doesn’t begin at a masterpiece. It’s the process of repeated failure and learning through “yes and”. When an idea is offered, we don’t have to worry about pushback with “no” or hesitation. The tension of uncertainty actually advances the idea further. Every film goes through 10’s of thousands of storyboards to distill the story to its essential features. “We labor over the story,” says Pixar CEO John Lasseter. Improvisation is in the DNA of Pixar’s culture and what they call plussing is the idea of driving forward together with “yes and.”
Make your partner look good
During a group improv session, basically, our job is to make each other look good. Instead of shooting down each other’s ideas, we build them through “yes and.” In other words, it’s about empathy. My personal story runs on the same thread. Overcoming speech impediment and social anxiety required me to change my inner narrative from “what will they think?” to “what pleasure can I bring?”
There are no mistakes, only opportunities
Soon as we let go of the need to be perfect, we open ourselves to rapidly learn from mistakes and continuously grow as a result. Master improviser Robbin Williams puts it best, “we have to fail to find the new.”
As shapers of our own stories, improv is a way of being with them to inspire trust and cooperation. What started as an invitation to do nothing, “yes and” led me to a room full of adults playing, creating, and connecting. The night was a blast and through a series of games, the group met friction and flight, and that’s life in the moment.