Thursday, April 18, 2013

6 Lessons I learnt from Improv


I’m delighted to have attended an improvisational theater (improv) class this quarter.

My relationship with improv has been one of huge admiration. I grew up watching “Whose Line Is It Anyway” with an expression of jaw-dropping awe as performers created delightful new stories and songs out of nothing.

I was introduced to improv professionally a few years ago. I had an opportunity to collaborate with the fabulous team at On Your Feet – a management consulting firm that uses improv as a methodology to spark collaboration and growth with the world’s leading corporations. 

As I watched them work, I noticed that great improvisers made great facilitators. Not just because they used a set of kick-ass tools. There was something different about how they showed up as people. An incredible sense of presence.

So here I am – signed up to learn improv with Daryl Olson and Shelley Darcy from Brainwaves. Very soon, I’d like to add improv to my facilitation toolkit. For now, I’m using this as a tool for personal growth. And fun.

So here's presenting...the top 6 lessons I learnt from improv:

1. Expand your palette:
Improv truly invites you (actually, forces you!) to explore your whole palette of physical and vocal expression. What does that mean? Well, it’s the way you stand. The way you move. The space that you occupy. The tone of your voice. Your volume. Your mental models. The character that you choose to play every day.

We started the class acting like screaming trees being chopped down – and that’s when I learnt that raising my voice, even for fun, causes a huge discomfort for me internally.

Most of us choose to limit ourselves to a very small range of colors. Exploring this whole palette of body-mind-voice expression is frightening and very liberating.

2. Be in the NOW: 
Improv also forces you to pay more attention. There are no lines to remember, no pre-determined characters to play. The best thing you can do as an improviser is be intensely focused in the now.

When I try to “game the system” by thinking of clever lines in advance, I stop paying attention to the present, and choke. When I choose to listen, breathe and accept – well – that’s when the magic happens. Total awareness leads to creative action.

3. Everything is an offer:  
One of my favorite insights from improv class is learning to use everything as on offer. In improv speak, this is the “Yes, and…” attitude.

Improvisers take every single suggestion thrown at them and find a way to embrace it and expand the story. I’m not talking about half-assed acceptance, but a whole-hearted embrace. What a great attitude to live life with every day.

4. Trust more:
Improv is the ultimate practical experience of trust. To be successful you HAVE to trust – your own brain and the the other players.  

Having this strong safety-net of support let’s you go out on a limb and take risks you never would have. Trust leads to magical collaboration.

5: Thank your limbic system: 
As a new improviser, I often get paid a visit from my old friend – the limbic system or the alligator brain. This is the portion of the brain that kicks into a “fight or flight” mode when something really scary gets thrown at you. My “thinking brain” shuts down and I’m working from a space of…well…panic!

While trying to figure out how to get around that panic, I realized that I’ve never really thanked my limbic system. It’s always fighting SO hard to protect me – against hypothetical attacking lions, against threatening situations that make me look silly, against taking high risks.

So here’s what I do now, when panic begins to set in – I take a moment to thank my limbic system. This is how our conversation normally runs:

Nitya: “Thank you, limbic system, for trying to protect me right now. I’m full of gratitude! There’s absolutely no need to worry though. This is very new, but I’m having tons of fun. You can take a break and go nap for a while”
Limbic system: “Really? Gee, thanks Nitya.”

(PS: So if you see me talking to myself on the street, this is what I’m doing!)

6. Take a break from your goals:
One unexpected learning for me from the class was re-discovering how valuable it is to not be goal oriented all the time!

Most aspects of our lives – work and even working out – have become intensely goal focused - and for a good reason. But giving myself permission to play without expectation, to learn something new and to crash and burn has been so liberating and SO much fun.

I’m excited about exploring this form of art further – and by learning improv – happy to be learning more about myself.