Improv

By Engager Lawrese Brown

The Blind Leading The Blind. That is literally what happened when I was facilitating a Blind Trust activity for a group of teens. During the activity, each person guides their partner around the room by their fingertips while their partner’s eyes are closed.

At the end of the activity, I asked the pairs “How did it feel to be led? How did it feel to have your eyes closed?” That’s when one of the pairs said, “We both had our eyes closed as we moved around the room.”

de298b_55847c546b2247039f8ca70e92f4db12mv2I was intrigued. I’d facilitated this activity frequently and never had that happen before. I then had the remaining teens do another round where both people in the pair tried to navigate around the room with their eyes closed. The final round was absolutely comical, but also a critical “aha” moment for us. As one teen said, “You need someone to lead so that you have direction.”

We know that you need leaders and followers, but we don’t often talk about the skill it takes to lead (initiative) and the skill involved in following (flexibility). As an instructor, it was the perfect demonstration of improvisations reliance on both. The final round showed us the importance of being both enterprising and easygoing when focused on achieving a result.

There is a tendency on teams to think in extremes – either you are easy going and go with it or you are being assertive and taking charge. But what would happen if we celebrated teammates that demonstrated both qualities equally?

If you’re too easygoing, you’ll never take action. And if you’re too assertive, you’ll leave no room to adapt. As the activity fundamentally showed us, progress (movement) and success (not bumping into anyone or anything) relies on a balance of both.
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Imagine how we would shift our behavior on teams if we knew that every time there was a department project, the team’s ability to reach the desired result was the only metric we were judged on. There wasn’t an opportunity for you to say, “Well I did my part…” or conversely, “Well I did what everyone else was doing…”

de298b_3037f3252cdf40639a372277971b37c4mv2Accepting that teamwork requires a balance of initiative and flexibility (or leading and following from all members of the team) is the best way to hold everyone accountable for the times final result. Both improv and teamwork are like having a great conversation, it’s not just what you say that’s great, but it’s also what others said to you. That balance is where the magic happens.

What a month November was… We are looking forward to a chill December and a rocking New Year! If you missed our November videos, here’s a recap. And don’t forget, you can subscribe to our Youtube channel and watch them as they roll out every Monday!

November 7:

November 14:

November 21:

November 28:

By Engager Jill Frutkin

I love it when educators come to class. There is a knowing look when I tell them I was an elementary classroom teacher for years.

You can plan the world’s greatest lesson – complete with the most appropriate standards, the most engaging materials, the most thoughtful grouping – and then there’s a fire drill. Or half the class is absent. Or what you thought was engaging is actually totally boring to them.

copy-of-img_4469To be a great teacher means you think (and eat lunch, and do most things at work) on your feet. You need to be taking the temperature of your students needs constantly, and re adjusting accordingly. Something you did not expect is always going to happen – and this is actually a very good thing.

By being in the moment and paying attention to how students react, you can seize the real teachable moments. The combination of planned activity, uncontrollable circumstance and a listening teacher ready to respond creates an ideal environment for real learning.

I found this to be true in an EE improv workshop this fall. I was leading a session in an office with a team of employees, focusing on team building, agility, and communication. I started the session with my favorite warm up, “Rubber Chicken”. The exercise aims to connect our bodies with our voices with our heads and our hearts. We shake out our limbs (body), while loudly counting down from 8 (voices, heads) and making eye contact with someone in the circle for each limb (hearts). It’s a great exercise to bring a group together, warm up, and create a safe, unison space.

copy-of-img_4484Before we started, I modeled how the exercise looks and sounds, shaking my arm and loudly counting to 8, projecting my voice and connecting it to my movement. I noticed a few alarmed faces, and told them not to worry, we’d be doing the exercise in unison, so that nobody would be listening to any one individual voice. The alarmed faces told me that volume level was a definite no-no. We couldn’t be that loud – people were working down the hall.

For a split second, I froze. I didn’t want to offend or upset anyone, and this was not a great start. Then I turned the moment into a lesson. I was there to teach flexibility, and this was an opportunity to model agility in the moment.

I thanked the participants for letting me know the parameters of the room. Then I pointed out that the objective wasn’t to be loud – it was to warm up, and to connect our voices to our bodies. We could easily keep the same intention and intensity with a quiet volume. I made my agility transparent – thinking aloud with participants. When a situation you didn’t expect copy-of-img_4461comes up, one way to imagine a solution is to look at what is most important. In this case, the warming up and connection was most important, not the volume. We could easily make the adjustment and continue with the exercise.

It was a fantastic workshop, and the participants were engaged, joyful, and reflective. The moment of flexibility was a great lesson to me – it deepened how I see an exercise I use daily – and I hope that by making my agility transparent, I modeled flexible thinking and problem solving. I truly believe that using the principles of improv help us find valuable teachable moments in every situation.

Wow, we just completed out first month of weekly #YesAndTube videos! You can watch all the weekly tips below, plus subscribe to our Youtube channel and watch them as they roll out every Monday!

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.

FRIENDS!!!!! We have exciting news: Starting in October, we will be posting a new video each Monday, with improv tips, tricks, and lessons you can take and use in your life!

Here’s the announcement video from our Founder, Jen Brown:

Also… JUST KIDDING!!!! We couldn’t wait until October! Here’s the first one!

By Engager Lawrese Brown.

Many people come to improv classes to improve their communication skills. Communicating is one of those elusive skills we work on the entirety of our careers and ultimately our lives. Whether our motivation is wanting to become image5better public speakers, quicker on our feet, more creative in our responses, and more direct in our intention – we all want to express ourselves better. Yet, in focusing so heavily on what we say, we easily overlook the power in how we say it.

In 1967, Dr. Mehrabian did a study on how the mind configures meaning and found that the formula for interpreting a message is seven percent verbal, thirty eight percent vocal and fifty five percent visual. Yes, that means most of how we communicate is not with our words. The fact that we convey so much meaning with our bodies is easily overlooked. Yet, when having a conversation with someone who stares at us blankly, asks questions monotonously, and never makes a gesture, we’re quickly reminded that true connection and true conveyance of our message is improv. jpgin the body. Improv is king when it comes to communication courses because it’s grounded in movement, meaning that improv exercises not only strengthen what we say, but actively increase our awareness of what we are doing when we say it.

Whether we’re playing “What Are You Doing?,” Translator or simply scene building, improv challenges us to bring words to life – and with no props, no scripts, no scenery and no judgment — we do that in the most organic way possible – with our selves. So next time you are talking to someone or preparing for a speech don’t just practice your talking points, but take a moment to look at how you move.

Consider the following:
(Tone) How are you saying it?
– Are you irritated? Excited? Uncertain? Anxious?
HUM 6(Facial Expressions) How we look when we say it:
– How’s your eye contact? Is your mouth open? Are your eyebrows furrowed?
(Gestures) How’s your body?
– What are your hands doing?
– Are you leaning? Swaying? Standing completely still?
– Is your head tilted? Is your chin down? Are your toes curled?

As Amy Cuddy proclaimed in her famous TED Talk, our body language not only shapes others perception of us, but it also shapes how we see ourselves. And that fits in perfectly with the second most important rule of improv (after YES AND of course) – no matter what happens, just keep moving.

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

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 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

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