Thinking Improv? Do It. My First 18 Magical Hours (Part 1)


Let’s set the stage, so to speak. I recently turned 50, delightfully married for nearly half of those years (yes, same wonderful woman, DeDe, just to be clear) and am a mid-level executive with a large healthcare system. Nearly all of my twenty years with this organization have been in strategic planning. In other words, trying to meticulously forecast and prepare for the future — for example, how many patients will our hospitals need to be able to serve five years from now.

However, eighteen months ago, I made a change, within this same organization. I joined our corporate innovation team, swapping spreadsheets for customer interviews, future narratives and post-it notes. So, I’ve been on a personal journey for a while now, getting out of my comfort zone, developing new skills and generally extracting some latent right-brain talent that had been getting stale.

Last year, I had been thinking about using improv within our Innovation Engine team. It’s a small team of great people who already have a strong level of trust established, but I saw improv as a potentially fun way to further challenge ourselves and to add to our creativity toolkit. My wife and I have been to Chicago a couple of times over the years, seeing a Mainstage Show (with the late, great Harold Ramis sitting at a back table) and a fun, informative Old Town walk hosted by a Second City actor.

In recent years, DeDe has focused gift-giving more on experiences rather than things. Even so, last October for our anniversary, when I opened a box with this in it, I was stunned:

WTF?!?! By my recollection, I said this could be a great team-building activity at work — not throw me into the deep end of the pool! For a few minutes, my primary emotions were fear and bewilderment. 😱😱😱 However, to DeDe’s credit, that subsided pretty quickly, as I realized that she had really nailed this gift. The right thing, at the right time.

Room 207 — Where the Magic Happened

Fast forward to March. Day One. My improv immersion classmates have been gradually entering Room 207. One of the great curiosities to me leading up to the class was: who in the world does this? Young people trying to get in the business? Older (or put more delicately, more mature) people like me trying to push the envelope in life? (Well, at least after my wife pushed me into the deep end) As we began chatting, it was apparent — Yes, Yes, and then some.

As our fabulous teacher, Julia, circled us up and we waited for the last one or two to arrive, I noticed something interesting. One of these things…was not like the others. And that thing was me. I was the only dude. Hmmm. Would this be weird? I joked about it, slightly nervously, as it was finally confirmed — Nine ladies, One guy. 😲

During the last afternoon, we were doing our “Circle of Love” exercise to give praise to our classmates, and the topic come up of me being the only male. We realized that after a couple of jokes about it during the first ten minutes or so of the first day, it never came up again. It just didn’t matter. Gender didn’t really seem to be a thing — I played female characters, they played male characters. It’s all good in Room 207.

Freakishly Fast Trust

One of the magical things that occurred over the three days was the rapid development of trust. I’ve spent a lot of time in corporate team-building sessions during which we learned that vulnerability is an important ingredient in the development of trust. Few things in life are as soaked with vulnerability as an improv class, save public nudity and speaking in front of really large audiences.

Within a couple of hours, our diverse class of ten people — none of whom previously knew one another — had a very high level of trust. Personally, I felt safe, and that any of my classmates would have my back. Wow.

How did this happen? It wasn’t rocket science, but it was effective. We quickly did some games that got us working together in a circle, doing rather silly things. We made up gestures and noises that we passed around the circle in various ways. We did a couple of “Yes And” exercises. And we did one-on-one interviews in front of the class. Our classmates really opened up to each other. Sure, there were some funny moments, but there were also some moments of real, emotional, personal reflection, laid bare to a room of strangers. There was a lot of authenticity.

When I think about using some of these exercises in a corporate setting, I wonder — is the environment so different that it wouldn’t work as well? After, we were a group of ten people, many of whom may never see each other again. (though that thought pains me) We didn’t have organizational structures, office politics and performance goals. I can’t honestly say that I have the answer to this question, but I’m optimistic enough to want to try some things at work that deepen trust among teammates.

Listen. Observe. Be Open.

This isn’t an Improv 101 article and there’s a lot of stuff written on Yes, And. Really good stuff that I can’t improve upon. My reflection here is that improv games turn you inside out. You have to get out of your head and focus on your partner(s). When you don’t, the game can break down, and the team suffers.

Our mirroring exercises were foundational to our learning — co-creating words, sounds and motion with your partner. Then leaning on each other to smoothly move those words, sounds and motions around the circle.

Later, our circle exercises got more complex. We had to not only be in synch with our partners directly on our left and right, but with other classmates several positions down from us. You need to watch them, make eye contact. They help you and you help them. It’s easy to get a little lost in all the noise and craziness — your partners bail you out.

The exercises often focus on the concept of sending and receiving. One of your partners has an imaginary ball and it needs to go somewhere. Or they have an imaginary freak on a leash. If you start disengaging from the game for a moment, you aren’t open. When you aren’t open to receive, you’re not helping your partner. And that freak bites.

Three Awesome Words: “You Got This”

I was really busy at work in the weeks leading up to my class, so I didn’t have a lot of time to think about it and get nervous. In the final preceding days, I would say my anxiety level was mild-to-moderate — not bad but certainly not non-existent. I had not listened to the excellent Second City Works podcast hosted by Kelly Leonard (Executive Director, Insights and Applied Improvisation at Second City and author of “Yes, And,”) for a number of months (sorry Kelly!), but I dusted it off and listened to a couple of episodes the night before I left for Chicago. That got me a bit psyched — I was good to go. The evening prior to class, after I had arrived in Chicago, I sent the following tweet, to which Kelly graciously replied the following morning:

“You got this.” From the author of “Yes, And,” Its safe to say that I was feeling fairly confident that morning! (Both about class and my Twitter engagement, to be truthful)

The great thing is, that wasn’t the last time I heard it over the next three days. On several occasions, when a classmate was struggling to form an idea during a game, another would proclaim confidently, “You got this.” It wasn’t perfunctory. It wasn’t fake. It was “48 hours ago I didn’t know you existed on this planet, but now I care about you, and we’re going to succeed together.” And there was something about those “You got thises” that had the power of the whole room behind them.

In the corporate world, when a presenter stumbles, what’s often the reaction? Maybe an uncomfortable silence. A whiff of impatience in the room. Perhaps an admonishment later about being better prepared. What if it was a genuine “You got this.”?

Intentional Serendipity

My boss, the brilliant Dr. Jean Wright, has cultivated the notion of Intentional Serendipity over the past few years. Our Innovation Engine team even devoted a podcast episode to the topic recently. (Yes, this is a shameless plug for A Sherpa’s Guide to Innovation, Episode 10 on Apple Podcasts, Google Play Music and SoundCloud!) The notion is that you can put yourself in the right place at the right time to have wonderful, unexpectedly productive things happen with either strangers or new or unexpected places.

I believe that, to a person, our class found the experience to be magical, or at the very least, truly special. In some cases, it may prove to be life-changing.

It’s tempting to say that our group was ten random people coming together for an improv class. But there’s very little random about it. We each committed three days, money and had the courage to take an improv class at the most renowned improv group in the world. (Seriously, the visages of Ramis, Fey, Poehler, Murray, Colbert, et. al. literally gaze down upon you in the Training Center.) Several of us travelled significant distances. There was perhaps some luck involved such that we had a class that gelled so quickly and deeply. But there was intentionality behind it. We all chose it. Second City was the place. The right thing, at the right time, with the right people.

Final Reflections

Why did I write this? Well, for one thing, I had to get it out of me. The experience was somewhere in between profound and life-changing — but too early to say where it falls. Second, I hope to encourage people to do this — perhaps placing a first thought, or even pushing someone to act on what they’ve already been thinking. Do it. Part of what I learned is that trying to plan during an improv game or scene doesn’t really work — you just need to jump in. It might help you professionally, it might help you in your relationships. At a minimum you will have fun!

Lastly, I needed to write this to express appreciation to my teacher and classmates. Julia was perfect for our class — she’s loud, zany, and uber-funny — but also so supportive, and really good at explaining the “why” behind the games. Yes, they are called games, but don’t be fooled — there’s some pretty deep learning behind them. You are so awesome Julia! When you win the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series, we will all be so honored for you to totally forget about us little people! 😂

To Amber, Andy, Debra, Elizabeth, Jen, Margaret, Priscilla, Reilly and Victoria: Thank goodness for sunglasses in the Uber on the way to O’Hare Friday — my eyes may have misted a bit. (some more of that vulnerability stuff I guess) Our time together ended too quickly, but it was indeed magical while it lasted. You are very special and talented women, and I wish you the best in all of your endeavors. 🙏🙏🙏🙏🙏🙏🙏🙏🙏

A Final Plea

Since I’ve got, like 19 Medium followers, please clap a lot if you got something out of this so that others can find it and share it with some people you care about. Heck, share it with people you don’t care about who might like it. Share with people who you truly can’t stand but who might like it. And if you got this far, THANK YOU!

Twitter: @JayGerhart

Yes, And…There’s More!

I’ve got some more to say about improv from a couple of other angles. Stay tuned, Parts 2 and 3 are coming soon!