Category Archives: Engager Content

How Improv Enhances Creativity

By Engager Lawrese Brown

“Think outside the box.” We’ve all heard the expression before. It’s the call to action to innovate, the definitive dog whistle for Think Different. In the past, us non-creatives were off the hook, because the creative types were easily spotted: They worked in theatre, fashion, music, and media. But now every industry calls for us to create and innovate. With technological disruption and an ever-changing hustle and gig economy, innovation is everyone’s responsibility.

And we can do it, right? At least we think we can. What’s so hard about trying to think of new ways to approach our problems, products and processes? So when pushed to take risks, we raise our hands and nod our heads in agreement, and then we soon realize that relinquishing our boxes isn’t so easy. The irony of creativity is that it takes work.

Why? Because everything about us as professionals is trained towards obsessive logic. In school and business, there is a right answer and wrong answer. There is efficiency and inefficiency, there is time saved and time wasted, there is work and play….and play can’t be work?

We can’t ovethink creativity, and even that is counterintuitive. Creativity is a tool best offered when we let loose. It’s in that freedom that we are most imaginative, instinctive and inventive. For example, one of my favorite improv games is the active listening game, “Last Word Response.” The game calls for participants to use the last word of the previous person’s sentence as the first word of their sentence. So if I said, “I love you,” the next person would say, “You are the greatest,” and then “Greatest love of all,” and so on and so forth. The game usually works well until someone says something like, “This is cool” and someone says cool is…. Cool *pause*…..cool *longer silence* ….suddenly without an immediate answer….we feel stuck.

As one improviser said of the game, “It’s hard because there is pressure to make sense.” To which I ask, “who said you had to make sense?” Who’s to say you can’t say “Cool cats,” “Cool is an adjective,” “Cool Kids rule” or “Cool Whip is my favorite topping on pancakes?!” In those moments we realize that “the pressure to make sense” is code for saying something that “we know works.” Something that is familiar. Something that is reasonable.

Improv enhances our creativity because it pushes us to think outside the box by encouraging flexibility, increased initiative, positive risk taking and fun. Quite simply, improvisation and creativity shift us out of what’s proven into more of a focus on what’s possible.

Expectation is the sister of anticipation, and there’s no anticipating in improv. The skill set teaches us to be comfortable with the unknown and enables us to take risks, constantly shift, and elevate what could be. Essentially, improv kills the box and with no box, we realize that the greatest obstacle to our creativity are ironically, the limits and rules we continue to put on ourselves.

The Power of Repetition & The Principle Behind Continuing Education

By Engager (and recent graduate of NYU with a Masters in Educational Leadership! Congrats!) Lawrese Brown

For many of us, repeating anything is a form of low-level torture. We spend our lives both personally and professionally convinced that we should “get it right the first time.” We think that if we just move slowly enough, plan meticulously enough, and forecast appropriately then we can nail it and never have to worry about it again. Sometimes that works, but sometimes the only surefire way to learn anything, and even more so to learn how to do anything well, is by doing it again.

Here’s what I mean: It is only in the continuous doing of anything that we really grow in our competence of it. It is in our repetition that we transform what we do well into what we do best.

As the fable goes, a pottery professor divided his class in half. To the left side, he said, “you will be graded on the quantity of work you produce” and to the right side he announced, “you will be graded on the quality of the work you produce.” Fast forward to final projects eight weeks later and the students with the highest quality pots were those whose grades were dependent upon the quantity of pots produced.

Even if this story isn’t true, it is important. In its outcome, it speaks to repetition as a means of learning, and also as the root of excellence. It also begs the question: why do we so commonly position quality and quantity as counterparts instead of complementary pieces?
When I started taking improv, my fellow improvers and I would look to Jen as the guru. We just knew that no matter what scene she was in or what word she was thrown, she was always going to ace it. In our minds, she knew everything. But when Jen overheard us all aspiring to be an improv master like she was, she said, “You guys know there’s no such thing as an improv master, right?” In that moment and in that question, she wasn’t negating the fact that she had decades of improv experience. She was highlighting the fact that while continuing improv would undoubtedly strengthen our skills, there would never be a point where we were so perfect that we never had anything left to learn. Even as we became more confident and quick thinking, there would always be a reason to keep going because there is always room for improvement.

Both taking and teaching improv have been powerful tools for my personal and professional growth. I no longer think of learning in terms of completion but as a process along a continuum – I know that every time I take an improv course or teach a class, my desire for improvement (strengthening old skills and learning new ones) is what will push me toward a level of quality and excellence. As Bruce Lee famously said “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.” It is in the practice, the repetition, and the continuous doing that quantity and quality converge.

Embrace the Red Face

The first article from our newest Engager, Olive Persimmon!

I’m standing in front of an audience of fifty people and I can feel that it’s happening. My face is starting to get hot. In a few minutes, my entire face and neck will be covered in blotchy hives. A few minutes after that, the hives will turn tomato red. Clown face red. Strawberry Shortcake red.

And I’m not even halfway through my speech.

Before I address my red face, let me start out by saying that I love public speaking. In fact, love is an understatement. I passionately, obsessively think of words as my gift. I’ve given 100’s of speeches to varying sizes of audiences. Despite all of this, I still occasionally turn red when I speak. Not always. Not often. But it happens. Enough that I decided to write about it.

When I started working professionally as a communication coach, I would occasionally find myself in front of the classroom starting to get blotchy. I was young and new in the field and frequently in front of professionals twice my age. So here I am, a younger professional teaching presentation/speaking skills with cheeks flushed rosy red. I was worried it would diminish my credibility. I was terrified that people would see my face turn red and think, “What can she possibly teach me about speaking? Her redness is a sign of insecurity.”

I became obsessed.

I scoured the internet for remedies for my red face. I downloaded videos and bought vitamins.  I changed my diet in case I had some sort of food allergy.  I practiced intense breathing methods and developed thorough routines. While some of these things helped, they also reinforced the internal agreement I had made with myself that this was a serious problem.

The more I obsessed about it, the worse it became. It was the only thing I could think about. For the first-time in my life, I started having full-on panic attacks while speaking or teaching.  My entire attention would focus on my face turning red and my body would enter “fight or flight” mode. Blood rushing to my ears. Heart racing. Numb fingers. This is what happens when our brains start to freak out and our bodies have a real and intense reaction to our perceived danger.

I had to do something.

This was stealing the joy from something I loved.  Something I had been doing for years. Giving up speaking was not an option. (It should never be an option. You have important ideas, your fear of speaking should NEVER prevent you from sharing them).

The turning point came after I watched this Youtube video with a man named Dr. Barry.

It turned out, the secret to ending panic attacks, was to do nothing. To elaborate, fight or flight mode occurs when our bodies think we are in danger. The more you feed the anxiety, the more it grows. The more I obsessed about my red face, the more symptoms I started having.

According to Dr. Barry, “Symptoms of anxiety are uncomfortable but not dangerous… Once you learn to accept that this is uncomfortable but not dangerous you will think… why am I letting something that is just uncomfortable take over my life…you begin to normalize the symptoms of anxiety. The second you normalize the symptoms, you’ve won the battle…and panic attacks will disappear from your life.”

I watched this video three times before putting it in action.

I was in front of a 14 professionals when I felt my face start turning red. Breathe. “This is uncomfortable but it isn’t dangerous,” I repeated to myself mentally. “I am not going to feed this fire.” After about five minutes, my face returned to normal.

I did this two more times after that initial occasion. I haven’t had a panic attack since then. It sounds simple. Truthfully, it was THAT simple. Definitely simpler than obsessing, fretting, and worrying.

Does my face still turn red while speaking? Yes. Sometimes it does. Sometimes it goes away. Sometimes it remains. But I don’t obsess about it. I talk through it. I voice my opinions clearly in meetings or with friends. I use my words to motivate, inspire, and make people laugh. Most importantly, I keep speaking. I keep looking for opportunities to speak even though I know it might happen. I have something to say and I refuse to let my fear steal that from me.

So, if you’re afraid to speak because you think you might have a physical reaction. Sweatiness. Or shallow breathing. Or Red face or dry mouth or whatever. Speak anyway. It’s as simple as that. Open your mouth and speak. Learn to breathe. Hydrate yourself. But start by opening your mouth and saying something.

Your body may react. It may not. And if it does, remind yourself that you are not in danger despite uncomfortable symptoms. That you have important things to say.

Embrace the red face.

– Olive Persimmon

Listening, Responding, Specificity, Commitment

April is Autism Awareness & Acceptance Month. We are thrilled to bring you this special reflection from Engager Jill Frutkin.

When I teach Improv, I say these four words over and over: Listening, Responding, Specificity, Commitment.

I tell my students not to worry about being funny, or being a great performer- as long as you are listening, responding, and being specific and committed in your communication, you’re doing it right.

Improvisation is by definition unscripted. No one knows what is going to happen next. In order to communicate, we need to listen. Full listening happens not only with our ears, but with our eyes, our hearts, and our entire bodies. When we are really listening, we’re taking in more than just words. We are listening to how someone feels. We look at their eyes, we read their body language, and we listen to their facial expressions.

As we listen, we respond. If we have honestly listened, we can respond honestly. In Improv, sometimes response makes us laugh. This laughter doesn’t come from a clever or calculated place, it comes instead from honesty. The best laughs I’ve had in an Improv class are from responses that in theory should not have been funny, but because they came from honest listening, they were joyfully hilarious in their humanity.

Sometimes a response doesn’t make us laugh: it makes us think. An honest response says a lot about a person and the way they think and feel about the world. When two people are honestly listening and responding, a productive conversation is happening.

In EE Improv classes for Professionals, we look at communication through the lens of how it can help us in our adult lives. How can honest listening and responding make a meeting more productive? How can it further a collaboration? How does full body listening improve the way you pitch to a client? We’re adults who have been communicating for years, but we all have ways we can improve.

For the past four years, I worked as a Special Education teacher. I taught 6:1:1 self- contained classrooms for young students diagnosed with autism. In addition to ABCs and 123s, I worked with students on improving crucial communication skills and emotional literacy.

The saying goes: You’ve met one person with autism means you’ve met one person with autism. My students were diverse learners: I had non verbal students who could read above grade level, verbal students with sensory processing needs, students who never spoke but would sing when music was played.

My students taught me a lot about communication.

You can let someone know what you’re feeling without saying a word.
You can listen without using your ears.

I learned to listen to my students’ body language. I listened to their words, and the individual ways they used their words. I listened to the sounds they used to communicate, and to their facial expressions. I listened to them as individual people communicating and responding in individual ways. The more I listened, the more I knew them. The more I knew them, the better I could design learning activities they could access and be successful in.

The more I teach students of all ages and learning styles, the more I realize that the truths of listening and responding are the same for all. As teachers and learners and people, we can all improve the ways we listen and respond, and in doing so we further communication and increase in productivity towards our goals.

– Jill Frutkin

Improv Empowers Teamwork By Tackling Realism – Lawrese Brown

Improv is truly a team sport. If you’ve been lucky enough to witness the magic of two or more people affirming, contributing and creating a story together, then you know what I mean. In those moments it’s clear to me that the sum of all parts (or people) is more powerful than a singular person – and that is the purpose of teamwork. Or is it?

Often when we work in teams, our goal is simply to finish an assignment. Whether a presentation or new project, we approach teamwork as a tool to complete a task faster, not to take the task further. This is why, in groups, many of us quietly mumble a quiet prayer about having the option of working alone. With our hectic schedules, deadlines and endless to-do-lists we’ve forgotten that the purpose of teamwork isn’t an exercise for completion, but collaboration… and that means achieving something bigger, better, and more valuable than what we would have been able to create by ourselves. (Don’t believe me, see inspirational quotes below.)

“Unity is strength…. When there is teamwork and collaboration wonderful things can be achieved.” – Mattie J.P Stepanek

“If you want to go fast, go alone, if you want to go farther, go together?” – African Proverb

“Teamwork, simply stated is less me and more we.” – Anonymous

Because in improv we seldom know exactly where the scene is going, as players we focus more on what is possible than what is practical. If we agree that the purpose of working on a team is not just completing or creating, but creating bigger and completing more than what we can do alone, then we have to push past one of our favorite adult habits: realism.

While being realistic works when talking about the economy and predicting outcomes, practicing realism as an adult easily becomes an intuitive mechanism for limitation. We become so enveloped in sharing what we should do to complete the project that we forget to consider what we could do as well. As William Shakespeare said, “We know what we are, but we know not what we may be.”

There’s a reason why your favorite and funniest stories have unexpected endings. One of the reasons we speak of “yes AND” so frequently in improv is because in affirming every idea we dwell in possibility. When we say “no” or “I should” we narrow and eliminate alternative ideas all together. So next time you’re working on a team, don’t just focus on getting to the end: Find freedom in the fact that together (contributing to each other’s strengths) you can achieve a much bigger, better and more brilliant ending.

– Lawrese Brown, Engager

Museum Mashup Reflections


Screen Shot 2016-02-12 at 10.19.20 AMA note from Jen:
The first Mashup was born in a car on the way to Whole Foods. And not a NYC car ride – this was a 10 minute conversation en route to picking up snacks for a reception at SECCA. Debbie Randolph was pushing, more than I was, to embody the spirit of improv in our next round of experimenting in museums at the 2015 NAEA conference. I remember having the conversation, getting excited about a great idea, then emailing the others to refining the car plan.

I’ve always had a level of tentativeness with truly incorporating improv into what I’m doing – blame it on years of hearing “improvisers are losers” from a theatre director who RAN an improv theatre. While others may have seen me as risky, I knew I was holding back some of the ‘crazier’ ideas. But over the last three and a half years, I’ve gotten bolder in taking the lead in improv integration within museum pedagogy Screen Shot 2016-02-12 at 10.18.46 AMAND owning my experience and opinions. The Mashup doesn’t belong to that little group of renegades from NAEA. It’s not mine – it doesn’t belong to any one person. We don’t have to be there to train people how to do it or to run it. The idea of experimentation within museums is present within the museum field already. But this celebration of failure/positive risk-taking/off-the-cuff/Yes, And mentality? This is improv. This is what, through The Engaging Educator, we are teaching and embodying – and have been for three and a half years, and will for many, many more. And here’s my experiment, embracing it all and running with those ‘crazy’ ideas that don’t seem so crazy once they get rolling.

So, moving forward we’re stewarding #MuseumMashup. This page is a place where we’ll promote, help organize, host resources, reflections, photos and information – it’s also where you can find organizers near you, and get involved in our next adventure this late summer/early fall – the Worldwide #MuseumMashup. That being said, welcome and do Yes, And the fun!

Screen Shot 2016-02-12 at 10.23.34 AMA note from Shaelyn: On the first Nationwide Museum Mashup Day, events were organized at 6 museums across the country. Museum educators, enthusiasts, and the public were invited to visit a site near them or follow along online with the hashtag #MuseumMashup. Between 10 am and 8 pm EST, there was only one half hour period when no group of museum enthusiasts was holding a Museum Mashup!

The hashtag generated nearly 800 tweets, with 300 original tweets and 400 retweets. Messages sent on twitter about the event appeared in timelines 800,000 times for as many as 3 million views. The hashtag reached #1 among trending hashtags in the United States in the evening. Whether participating online or in person, the first Nationwide Museum Mashup Day provided a wonderful opportunity for people to share the experience of looking at museums in new ways.

Visit our Storify summary of the day to see a recap of how it unfolded according to the tweets participants shared: https://storify.com/MuseumMashup/nationwide-museum-mashup-day

Meet Our Team: Britt Cannino

BrittanyWe’ve brought on a new team member to help facilitate our expanding programs in North Carolina: Meet new NC Engager Britt Cannino!

-What do is your role at The Engaging Educator? My role at The Engaging Educator is to help bring improv techniques and practices to the general public, businesses, and educators.

-Where are you from and how did you make it to NC? I am from Winston-Salem, North Carolina!

-When did you first start to love Improv? I first began my love of improv through my acting training in college and from there I began to teach and perform.

-What is something you want to Improv(e) on? I would love to improve on my self confidence as well as building others’ self confidence.

-Where is your favorite place in the city? My favorite place in the city is Tanglewood park with my dog or at the horse barn; or where I work my part time job which at is Camino Bakery, downtown.

-What’s a not-so-secret skill you have? Another skill of mine is visual arts, specifically comedic illustrations and drawings, as well as painting and design.

“AaahhhOOOgah” makes me feel like an ape blowing a trumpet to assemble the rest of the apes to war….basically planet of the apes.

“Yes, and” to theatre, comedy, pets, sushi, string lights!!

Reflections on Teaching from Jill Frutkin

I like to think of teaching as translation.
Yes, it’s also about sharing skills, and the giving of perhaps new information.
But the most important part of teaching to me is the translation: how can I take what I know, and translate it into a language you can understand?

To be successful at this, you have to be a good listener. Not just an ears listener, but an observer of the entirety of a person. What is this person responding to? What does their body language tell me? What kinds of words are they choosing to explain themself? What makes their eyes light up?

In my work with young students with autism, the translation element to teaching was highlighted in bold. I learned to intuitively understand how many words a student could process at a time. I changed the way I spoke and explained ideas so that knowledge was accessible. I was mindful of cadence and emotion attached to words, precise gesticulation and clear body language, and the changing of energies and activities within the classroom to keep all students engaged in learning.

Through teaching Improv, Presentation Skills and Storytelling with EE over the past 6 (!) months I’ve learned: it’s exactly the same with neuro-typical adults.

We all need a translation. Each group I’ve taught has been different, and I’ve tried my best to access and fulfill their needs. I love asking and listening to students explain why they signed up for the class, and what they expect to get out of it. It helps me tailor both the content of our time together, and the tone.

It’s been incredible to get to know and improv(e) with so many people through EE. One of my favorites moments in any class is the huge smile on everyone’s face as we pass the clap in a circle – adults! Clapping hands in a circle! The simplest thing you could think of, but beautifully difficult to make eye contact, establish non- verbal communication, and leave one’s self receptive to change at any moment. I love looking around the circle and seeing the playful grins and hands ready with anticipation. I try to offer pointers to make the exercise the most worthwhile based upon my translation of the group’s interpretation. Sometimes they need to speed up, and stop trying to be perfect and too nice; sometimes they need to slow down, loosen their bodies and enjoy the failures.

When we talk about “Yes, And”, I like to open up the discussion to the many translations of the phrase. Sure, we can take it literally, but what other words can we use to better understand the concept? What does it look like? What does it sound like? How can it benefit us? I offer up my ideas of the way the concept makes the most sense to me, but encourage students to find their own personal translation. In addition to practice, I recommend reading articles, discussion, and taking classes with more than one instructor to take in the material and re-appropriate it in the way that best suits your own self.

Translation can often be verbal, but effective teaching is done through modeling; the embodiment of the idea. Instead of simply explaining, the best teachers are.
In EE classes, this means making myself open to failure and publically embracing it, pointing out my own habits, and sharing examples of how I’ve reflected on the practices in my own life. In doing this I hope both to serve as an example of how to move through the class but also how to apply the practice to everyday life and share with others.

Translation is the space between: the communication connection of people sharing experiences and learning from them. Improv helps us to be active listeners and honest responders, and improves both teaching and learning.

– Jill Frutkin

Improv And The New Year

I’ve written previously about how improv helped me professionally, but I thought my upcoming two-year improv anniversary was a great chance to share how improv has helped me personally as well.

I will never forget lying in bed the day after New Year’s of 2014 thinking about all my big dreams, and how scared I was to actually pursue them. I, like every other person with a pulse, wanted to be Oprah and I wanted to be wealthy (still working on both) and most importantly, I wanted to not be afraid to make mistakes. I was just shy of four full years post-college, and I was still playing tug-of-war with the idea of a perfect career (you know that one that you believe is possible before you realize that nothing is perfect?)

High-off of my resolutions for the new year and armed with a desire to get messy, I enrolled in my first improv class at Engaging Educator. I chose improv because I needed something that would push me clear out of my comfort zone into the ugly territory of uncertainty and hopefully failure. (Sounds dramatic I know. But isn’t everyone dramatic around New Years?)

That one small step into my first class at Shetler Studios would prove transformative. About 6 months after I started improv, I was let go from my job and in an instant I had to start over.

Suddenly, the same principles that I celebrated for aiding in my professional growth – being quick on my feet, committing to my choices, and always saying “YES AND” – were now my professional mantras and life principles as well.

As with any emergent improv scene, the beginning is messy and the best is always yet to come. In uncertainty there is possibility, but there is also confusion and overwhelming fear. (Just ask anyone trying an improv game for the first time.) I had always known what I wanted, now I had to make the choice to take the chance to pursue it – and slowly but surely I did.  I applied to a graduate program in Educational Leadership at NYU, started a business that allowed me to continue working with high school and college students in the area of college and career readiness, and attended every conference, event, and panel on entrepreneurship I could find.

That was a year and a half ago.

Today, I am a semester shy of my receiving my Master’s Degree in Educational Leadership, Politics in Advocacy from NYU, through my business I’ve collaborated with thirteen non-profits and educational institutions to serve over 1000 students in NY and NJ, I’ve served as a keynote and conference speaker, and now I have the privilege of exposing others to the YES AND side of life as an improv instructor for the same company that first exposed me to YES AND.

I’m personally grateful for improv because it was a continuous reminder that with imagination, assertion and courage we can create –  and that our lives are our greatest creation.  I believe that when we let go, actively listen, and keep affirming our choices and each other than we can actively build new worlds and while building these worlds we see that the craziest, most surprising characters in life – are our true selves. When we YES AND life, we write scenes that we had no idea were even available for us to enter. A lot of my dreams have changed since I started taking improv, but thanks to improv and even more of my dreams have come true.

Cheers to another year of YES AND, Aooooogah’s and awesomeness for you!

Lawrese Brown

Talk the Talk

We’ve invited our wonderful Engagers to contribute reflections, articles, musings, etc., to our blog on a monthly basis! First up, Engager Minna Taylor. Read on, and don’t forget to subscribe to our blog via Bloglovin. – Erin

I was down in South Carolina with my parents over Thanksgiving. They are solidly in the baby-boomer generation and I am grateful for that. Anyone under 35 can appreciate our parents’ endearing curiosity about the latest gadgets that so far exceed their formative expectation of what technology could offer, that their engagement with said devices is what you expect from a child of my generation’s fascination with dial-up internet – the wonder it beholds! However, regardless of the technological acquisition (my mother is an avid Amazon shopper), they maintain a high level of analog nostalgia. They read the printed paper every morning, including completion of the crossword. They clip articles and mail them to me. They write letters. They have a landline telephone. Despite my awe at my mother’s crossword prowess, it was the telephone that spawned my consideration.

Much of my investigation into modern methods of communication has been on the loss of interpersonal comfortability and freedom in vocal expressiveness. There are a myriad of variables contributing to this social atrophy – fear, advertising, expectation of immediate gratification, privacy invasion – but I propose that it all began with the daily integration of our cellular devices. As advancements were made in our digital connectivity, so began the degradation of human connectivity. It has reached such an alarming degree that I assert many of us can go days – if not weeks – without engaging in truly meaningful conversation. That level of intimate sharing and presence is becoming an experience relegated to fairytales and John Hughes movies. We are losing the ability to say hello with an openness and allowance that was once standard engagement.

As I watched my parents pick up phone call after phone call, I began to consider the frequency with which I actually spoke to others in my life. My parents were expressing sincere interest and investment in the the conversations they were having. There is no way to compensate for that energetic sharing over text or email. No emoticon can represent the sparkle in my mother’s laugh or the warmth in my father’s tone. That is communication beyond the words and the level of communication that has now become reserved for the big things – birth, death, and marriage. It feels intimate to use our voices. To call?! To pick up the phone?! To consider taking some one’s time, anxiously waiting to say hello, all while secretly wishing that the savior of voice mail will prevent the firm, unquestioning attempt at contact with that person?! You commit to the following in a phone call: I want to talk to you. I am demanding your participation in a dialogue. You matter to me. I want to matter to you …

Let’s not, as we enter a new year, lose sight of the importance to exercise actions that make us human. We must reinvest in play, curiosity, patience, and community. The emotional and psychological effort required to make contact is a reflection of a constitution that is unexercised – atrophied. Slowly begin to integrate deliberate points of human contact and that fear you feel, that anxiety of engaging other people, will melt away. We will rediscover that we are all human and possibly empower ourselves to connect, embrace, and evolve toward a reintroduction of our basic right to use our voice and express ourselves freely. Go forth and engage.

Minna Taylor