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Improv For The Business Stage

1379594_384561101677383_2012140733_nMy partner, Kat Koppett, is a world expert in applied improvisation, focusing on how to use the techniques of improv to solve business problems.

She recently gave a webinar for Positive Business DC.

Improv for The Business Stage Changes the Way People “Listen

Marcia Moran reports that “a number of things Koppett said during the webinar have stuck and I’m now wondering if my approach played it a little too safe.”   You can read about Marcia’s epiphany here: Applied Improv Fosters Creativity, Innovation, And Healthy Company Cultures

Check Kat out at Koppett & Company.  She’s awesome.

 

Playwork

So, my daughter sent me a short video of my granddaughter, who is one-and-a-half, playing with a ball. It made me think about how critically important play is in our learning, and what hard work it is.

This very short blog post is to ask you: what’s your best, hardest, most tiring/energizing play/work experience, and how did (does) it help you?

I’d love to hear from you!

Turducken

The other day I related an observation a client and I cooked up about getting one’s ducks in a row. Baby ducks line up easily, but they don’t fly. Cute little aphorism, eh? There’s a growing awareness in the business world about taking too much effort to prepare, to make sure that everything is perfect, before launching a venture.  Forbes magazine ran an article on the subject a few months ago.

I am interested in why many people I have known (alright, have been) have, at various times in their lives, fallen into the trap of getting The Big Idea and having it become The Big Plan, with endless iterations, simulations, provisos and contingencies, but no actual movement. The Big Idea becomes  the Big Plan, and that becomes, over time,  Vague Memory.

My brand new  Turducken Model of Inactive Planning works like this:

  1. Big Idea. We fall in love with the big idea, until something triggers the Saboteur voice, who shouts (or even worse, whispers!)  That Big Idea? It’s a TURKEY! no WAY that thing will work! 
  2. Inspired Idea Person (IIP)  responds to saboteur: Oh, yeah? (Do you hear the hint of fear in the voice?) I’ll prove that it is not! I will plan so carefully that my Big Idea (Turkey!) can’t possibly fail! (See also, worn old comic tropes, “what could possibly go wrong!” )
  3. So the IIP starts to plan and plan and prepare and prepare, stuffing the Big Idea (Turkey!) with the Ducks! (for the sake of my little metaphor, let’s remove one “s”, shall we? Duck! )

But, see, the Duck doesn’t stuff so easily,  because, unbeknownst to the IIP, the Saboteur has stuffed the Duck full of Chicken! That’s right. The ducks, in this case, (you’ll notice I added the “s” back in.) aren’t being lined up in a row. They are concealing the chicken, that lies at the heart of this whole sad IIP/Saboteur drama. So…the duck is too stiff and bloated to fit into the turkey, the IIP gets exhausted (see, in the REAL Turducken, you BONE the birds to make it possible to stuff them inside each other!) So nothing happens. So, maybe the IIP realises: “Duh! I gotta bone these birds to make this work!” The IIP, so enamored with having solved the problem of stuffing the turkey with the duck, doesn’t stop to consider the lurking chicken, but instead embarks on a knife wielding rampage, deboning with abandon. Well, bones provide the strength, the substance….And the IIP ends up with a big flabby mess, and maybe a seriously cut finger, or a huge mess of deboned idea, bloated duck, and lurking chicken. (I am not a real fan of Turducken, you see.)14343_1278846375040_5473385_n

Alright. This blog post isn’t perfect. But hopefully it will provide  a bit of food for thought to go with all the yummy stuff you may plan to eat this week.  Happy Thanksgiving.

Baby Ducks, all in a row…

I learn so much from my clients.

In a conversrubber-duckation just now, we were talking about getting all of one’s ducks in a row before launching an exciting idea. She said: “Ducks don’t really line up very well.” I blurted: “Baby ones do….but they don’t fly.”

We had a good laugh, and she basically demanded that I get that idea out there through my blog.  So here it is. The metaphor is yours, dear friends, to do with as you will…

On Celebrating Failure

A friend recently took me to task for telling improv students to “celebrate failure.”

“You don’t mean ‘celebrate failure,’ ” she said. “You mean ‘celebrate risking failure.’ ”

That conversation was a couple of weeks ago, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. Here’s my conclusion: I mean both.  Certainly I need to celebrate my willinglness to risk failure, because risking failure is the only reliable path to creative success. This part is easy, and is, I think, where I often stop in my thinking.  I have indeed often invoked the phrase “celebrate failure” when I really mean “celebrate your willingness to risk failure in pursuit of success.”  But actual failure? The result of the experiment that bombs? Do I really advocate celebrating that?

The answer is yes. It is very helpful to celebrate failure. The answer, if I am really truthful, is that I haven’t celebrated my own failures in life enough. But I am getting better at it.  Why do I think it’s helpful, and why haven’t I done it enough?  There are many reasons.

If I don’t first accept, then celebrate my failure, I risk denying that failure, and I minimize the possible learning to be gained.  But if I say, in effect, “wow, yay me! I tried that new way to make crepes, and it was a train wreck!  Woo Hoo! I’m covered with pancake batter from head to toe! ”  a couple of things happen. First of all, my sense of humor is one of the most important tools in my personal toolbox, and I must be able to laugh at myself. When I can’t, even I can’t stand being around me. Secondly, that sense of humor often reveals analysis that is important. For me, honest humor is a big part of learning.

Babies learn to walk by falling down. They do not learn to walk by risking a fall—they learn by falling. The fall tells them what “too far in that direction with the center of gravity” is. So they fall sideways, and to the other side, and backwards, and forwards…imagine if a baby labelled himself “a failure” after just a few falls? They don’t, because babies are naturally celebratory beings. This is not to say that they don’t let us know that it hurts, dammit, when they give themselves a good clunk on the head during one of their trials. But they get back up. So perhaps in this sense, “Celebrate failure” means “I celebrate the me that continues to learn from failure. I celebrate the fact that I WILL learn this walking thing.”

A number of years ago I was talking with a friend about a very successful corporation. The friend, who had a bit of an axe to grind, referred to the CEO with some distain, and said “he collects failures.”  I asked what he meant? “He finds people who have gone down in flames, and hires them. Look at his management team. Every one of them had a big crash in their past. He does it because then he can get them for cheap. They feel so bad about themselves that they will work for way less than successful managers would.”  I didn’t buy my friend’s premise, though he listed several previous failures on the part of people on the management team.

First of all, my friend was nursing a grudge, and framing his remarks in a negative way.  Secondly, however, as I said, the corporation in question is very successful. I can’t imagine that it would be if it were led by someone who collected “failures” with such low self esteem that they would work cheaply. (How would he even do that? Is there a special headhunter that looks for people who  are full of self loathing?) I imagine that the CEO is wise enough to hire people that have failed for his management  team because he knows that failure can be  a great indicator of creativity, bravery, and dynamic, action-based thought. I further imagine that he doesn’t have much interest in the very safe individuals who have neither failed much, nor succeeded much, but simply exist to serve  a status quo created by someone more adventurous than themselves.

In the improv classes, the instruction we give that my friend objected to is that our students  take a “circus bow” when they try and fail. We use the example of the trapeze artist who fails in front of thousands….she falls to the net, flips onto the floor, and springs up, arms stretched out, in a gymnast’s bow. The very posture is celebratory–and we give her a huge ovation. Why? Because she was brave, and skilled, and she tried something we would never have the courage to try ourselves. We know that this time she didn’t do it, but she can. We know, from observing her failure, that she is inherently a success.

So why don’t I celebrate my own failures enough?

Back to the baby. It hurts, that clunk on the head. And that pain can drive any celebration out of the mind.  But in the baby’s case, there’s a step two. He says to himself (in baby language, of course) “You know, that last time, I felt a little catch in my stomach, like the muscles there were trying to hold my weight from going backward, just before I fell back and clunked this noggin.  So, if those muscles were a little stronger, If  I tensed them earlier…then  do that alternate the feet thing, and then…walking! Bob’s yer Uncle!” (Baby language is heavily influenced by 20th Century British slang.) “Yay, me!” says the baby. “I’ll get this walking thing in no time!”

In my own case, I sometimes stop at the “damn that hurts” phase.  I forget the learning part. And that makes me forget to celebrate. When I stop at the pain, I forget to celebrate. I open the door to the saboteur voice in my head. When I feel the pain, acknowledge it, and then celebrate, I learn. And then, lo and behold…I succeed.

 

 

Mr. Crankypants

Boy oh boy, Mr. Crankypants.  You don’t want to teach this morning. You don’t want to coach. You don’t want to walk the dogs through the glorious fall leaves. You don’t want to do the improv class tonight, do you?

Mr. Crankypants? Are you listening?  You don’t want to listen with all your focus and honor your scene partner, whomever he or she may be, and you don’t want to be creative and playful and provoke laughter and positive growth. I see you there, muttering to yourself about the bad people who stole your string ball…and I know something else.

You aren’t really mister Crankypants. I see you! Peek-a-boo!

That’s you, isn’t it, Mr. Lazypants? Oh, and your twin brother, Mr. Scaredypants!  Wait! There’s your sister, under that mask! Ms. Junk Food! How did she fit under that mask with you guys?

You haven’t fooled me. Mr. Crankypants is just a big old fraud. And so are you three  lugs.

But the problem is, even though I have seen through your disguise, you still effect me.

 

So I am going to take care of you.  I’m starting with a big, long breath,    in……out.

Now I am going to go look at the sky.  The rest will follow.  Mr. Crankypants, some days I let you win. Not today.

 

Unsung heroes: Time to stop humming and sing!

Running an improv company and a coaching practice at the same time may at first glance seem odd, but the fit is actually a great one.  Good improv is sometimes described in a nutshell as the art of taking whatever offer is at hand and saying “yes, and…”  The coaching? Pretty much the same thing.  As a coach I receive offers from my clients,  and say “yes, and…” usually with a curious intent.  And regularly, my clients blow me away with the creativity and power of their answers  in response to my “yes, and” questions.In 2006 a few of the members of the Mop & Bucket Co. got a meeting with Philip Morris, the CEO of Proctors in Schenectady NY.  We were a small troupe of creative people with a dream or ten, and that was about it.  We had no real home for our company, no regular performance space, no rehearsal space, and very little community recognition. But dreams? We had ’em!

So, we told this very busy, very high power arts administrator about our dreams. To regularly perform in a venue where we could build a faithful audience. To have a rehearsal/development space. To run classes—a school, actually, where people of all ages could study improv, become part of our company, and improve their lives in many ways as a result of their creative growth. We waxed eloquent.

Philip listened gravely, then in his ponderous, thoughtful way, asked one great question— a coaching question if ever there was one: “What’s stopping you?”

I had answers for that. Lack of funding. High rents. Difficulty in getting good PR. Blah blah blah.   Fortunately, I didn’t get a chance to speak.

My partner, Kat Koppett, jumped in and answered with the perfect answer. “Absolutely nothing…we’re doing all that, and it is happening. We  just wanted to see if you wanted to join us.”  The answer, it won’t surprise you, was yes. Philip wanted to help. And help he did, (and does)  in ways large and small. (Mostly, actually, large.) And…in that moment, my view of the path ahead changed. I realized I was focused on the roadblocks instead of the journey. It was a huge realization.

That was seven years ago.  Today, my company regularly performs in the”Underground,” a little basement theatre at Proctors. We have a faithful and growing audience. We just moved into a spacious new rehearsal/office space, where we are exploding with new creative projects. We offer a slate of classes for all ages, and we are developing a community of creative people, actors, non-actors, adults, kids…Everything we dreamed is real.  It has been and continues to be a lot of work. And we wouldn’t be doing it, I think, if it hadn’t been for one great question and one great answer.

My small improv company is one of dozens of groups that have received support and assistance from Philip. But many don’t know the extent of Philip’s role as arts mentor and champion in the community. In fact, perhaps because it is human nature to complain, I often read letters to the editor criticizing Philip, often for things that he has little or nothing to do with.  Proctors is a central part of a huge and successful push to revitalize Schenectady, and because of its size and stature, it has no shortage of critics. I sometimes get tweaked when I read criticisms of Philip that actually don’t make sense. But I know this guy: he’s got broad shoulders, and I am fairly sure he can shrug off those criticisms that are unjust, and learn from the ones with some merit.

In my coaching practice, clients often mention other people who inspire, assist, nudge, guide, mentor, and lift various people and organizations in various ways.  Often the folks I hear mentioned are familiar to me.  There are, in most communities, those people who devote themselves to developing others.

Another such person in my own life is Ms. Janet Tanguay. Janet is the Entrepreneurial Assistance Coordinator for the Albany-Colonie Regional Chamber of Commerce, and she owns her own business: Art n Soul, Inc., where she is a creativity coach and artist representative.  If you know anyone in a startup, or any artists in NY’s Capital Region, you’ve probably heard of Janet in one or another conversation, usually in the context of “Hey, you should get in touch  with…” When I decided to expand my coaching practice, Janet was one of my first calls. And of course, she was instantly helpful. Yet I imagine that a lot of people, the majority of folks around here, have never heard of her.  Personally, I think she should be famous.

Bill Ziskin, at Schenectady High School, is another of these amazing, mostly anonymous people. Dy in and day out, Bill provides excellent theatre education, a space where it is safe to grow, and a dry wit that doesn’t quite mask his real love for his students.  I know there are so many adults out there who, if asked, would credit Bill with kickstarting their success in life. But most people have never heard of him. Bill should be on a stamp, at the very least, if not regularly profiled in People Magazine.

There are so many mentors, and I have little space…so for today I will stop with these three. But I have determined that it is important that from here on in, I publicly acknowledge all of the champions I know.  Why? Because People ain’t gonna write about them, but it’s the right thing to do.  And because it feels good. And because: who knows what connections between people, people with great potential, might happen if I do? What great enrichments to our community might happen? What might take flight? And let me say it again: because it feels good.

So I make you an offer: want to feel great? Think about the unsung heroes in your life, and sing out about them.  Who knows what great thing might happen if you do?

I offer free sample coaching sessions. If you are curious about coaching, I hope you’ll contact me at coaching@mopco.org .

 

Bill Gates Admits Mistake. Headline Worthy? Really?

So, here’s a headline: “Bill Gates admits Contrl-Alt-Delete was a mistake, blames IBM”.
Wow.  From the article, found here: “It was a mistake,” Gates admits to an audience left laughing at his honesty. “We could have had a single button, but the guy who did the IBM keyboard design didn’t wanna give us our single button.”
An audience left laughing at his honesty…”  So, we have a headline that one of the richest men in the world, who built an empire based on experiment, innovation, and development (alright, Mac lovers, that’s another conversation!) admitted a mistake in front of an audience, and they were left laughing by his honesty.
In the improv world, we do a lot to train ourselves to celebrate failure, and to find the inherent possibility in our mistakes. Mistakes happen. In improv parlance, they are offers.  They are part of reality, and a critical component of any learning/development process.  But somehow, out there in the rest of the world, the admission of a mistake has become a novelty–has become, in the case of a famous man, news. Worse, I think, is the fact that we, the non-famous millions, even fail to admit mistakes to our close associates, our partners, our loved ones. Mistake= weakness? Is that the issue?  I propose to you that admitting a mistake should actually not be worthy of a headline. It should be, in fact, a widely accepted, simple tool for success.
I recommend an excellent book: Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts by Carol Tavris.  Let’s consider the headline again, and then Ms. Tavris’ title: “Gates admits…mistake, blames IBM.”  Mistakes…but not by me. Yep.
I imagine that Bill Gates has actually learned the importance of admitting his mistakes, at least in-house, long ago. But in our public culture, admission of a mistake is a big no-no.  Is it so rare that Mr. Gates admits mistakes to the public that it is worthy of a headline?  Is this merely because of the perversity of the press, or is something deeper going on?
I am not Bill Gates. Granted, I run a small company, but its assets would probably not even account for a day’s coffee-stirrer budget for Microsoft.  I make mistakes—who knows how many in a given day–dozens? So, why is it hard for me to admit one? What invisible (and non-existent) press corps do I fear? What headline do I imagine they would write, if I admitted a mistake? Would it be news, or would it be a moment for learning and growth?
In improv, we call the little voice in our head that calls for the non-admission of mistakes the Censor. In coaching parlance, the Saboteur. Whatever you call it, it’s a voice that can stunt your growth. Today, I am going to try to write a new headline: “Burns admits mistake, learns from the experience.”
I offer free sample coaching conversations. If you are interested, please contact me at michaelburns@mopco.org.

 

Coaching and improv: more musings.

Coaching and improv–the parallels and overlapping techniques keep on coming.
Last night, my improv pals and I started rehearsing for this year’s run of Spontaneous Broadway.* In this improvised musical format the actors improvise eight or ten songs in act one, then the audience votes on their favorite song.  Act two is a 45 minute improvised musical comedy play that includes a reprise of the winning act one song.
Improvising a play, musical or not, demands a high level of presence and awareness on the part of the improvisers. We have a basic plot formula to help put together a workable structure, but, since the play is improvised in real time in front of the audience, it can get confusing–an actor may not realize at first that she is the protagonist.  Or a different actor may think that he is, and then realize  that no, he isn’t…adjustments must be made almost constantly.  Consider an actor in the wings, who has an incredible idea.  He may get excited, he may relish it and focus on it for a few seconds, but then, because of this turning inward, he loses focus on the onstage action. Just for a few seconds.  a twist of dialogue renders the great idea useless—if the improviser isn’t listening, holding on to this preconceived idea and embellishing it, he can make a serious boo-boo.
Style is important.  If one actor is broad, over the top, and the other is subtle, nuanced—the scene probably won’t work.  The actors need to be aware, and adjust to each other—in improv terms, make each other look good.
There’s also the pitfall of “over offering.”  An improvised play must begin very simply, because everything–everything! is an offer. In a good piece of theatre, there should be nothing that is extraneous. In fact, playwriting teachers will tell you that the vast majority of scripts by new playwrights are attempts to squeeze two or even three plots into one play.  So in the improvised play, we, the writer/actor/directors, must learn to let go of impulses to over offer, and instead focus on receiving what is already there and working with it.
So it is in life, eh? Essentially, we are all writing, directing and acting our own improvised plays. Our scene partners are our families, friends, and co-workers.  How often, as we go about our day,  do we miss an opportunity to maximize our life by being too focused on our old ideas, instead of being fully present and working with the real interaction in front of us—now?
Knowing, here and now, what scene we are in, and whether we are the protagonist or a supporting player–is crucial to success in real life situations.
Yes, I hear you—“aren’t I always the protagonist?” Well, in the grand story arc of your life, yes. But in a given scene–a little one act play-within-the-play, you may serve your goals better by being a spear carrier.  Or you may miss the call to play your finest scene because you didn’t get the cue. It’s all about awareness…
The coaching session can be like a little breakout vignette, a little offstage interview, if you will, where the coach and client can examine the action creatively, and perhaps come up with an adjustment that will make the next act work better. A good coach can help a client recognize the times when the client’s awareness has drifted away from the important action happening now. Or perhaps, to separate a lesser plot structure, and set it aside, so that the really juicy important plot, the client’s success, can be better served. The client/coach relationship is improv, on the stage of life. It’s as creative as anything that happens on stage. And in a good coaching relationship, there is always the potential to produce a hit.

I am offering free sample coaching conversations. If you’d like to explore coaching with me, drop me an email at michaelburns@mopco.org

*Spontaneous Broadway Is a service mark of Kat Koppett and Freestyle Repertory Theatre.  Used with permission, all rights reserved.

Improv, Creativity, Coaching, and the "No Questions Rule"

For years I have trained actors, improvisers, and others in using improv techniques for both on and off stage purposes. Most of this work has been with groups. Now, using improv techniques and new concepts and techniques I’ve picked up in classes with the Coaches Training Institute, I coach individuals.I specialize in coaching people who are developing themselves creatively.  This new facet of my career comes out of my great love of helping people discover and nurture their inner improviser. I have seen that discovery bear fruit in delightful and unexpected ways.

The happiest, most fulfilled, most balanced people I know have one thing in common: they are creators. I’m not just talking about artists–I’ve worked with all kinds of people who are in no way artists, but they are people who habitually approach their lives and work in a creative way. They look at a challenge on the job, or in their personal relationships, or in their day to day living,  and see the chance to make something new happen instead of an impassable roadblock.  They perceive imbalance, and through creative inquiry, find a way to adjust and create balance. They hear dissonant noise, and through experiment, find the way to make a pleasing chord.

These folks tend to know a lot about themselves and about people in general. Paradoxically, this leads them to know that there is a huge amount that they don’t know, not by a long shot. They are comfortable being curious about themselves and others. They aren’t afraid to delve into their own minds and see what surprises are there. They ask questions of others all the time, because they genuinely want to know the answers. They never consider that not knowing makes them look stupid or less-than.

So: a key part of my coaching involves celebrating curiosity, mine and my clients’. We ask questions together, and in those questions and the thoughts they lead to we find the fuel for  the engine of positive change.

This curiosity, this openness to discovery relates to an ongoing discussion I’ve had for years with improvisers and other improv trainers. There is a fairly widely accepted  improv “rule” offered to beginning improvisers that states: “no questions.” Now, I don’t really believe in many of the commonly accepted hard and fast improv rules, because they are all too easily broken, often with excellent results. The “no questions” rule was developed as advice to new improvisers, in an attempt to avoid a certain type of anxiety-based question that tends to shut down a scene.

Its an oversimplification, but I talk to my students about “good cholesterol” and “bad cholesterol” questions. The “bad cholesterol” questions are caused by blockage. The “good cholesterol” questions are lubricants that facilitate creative action.

In a typical rookie improv scene, you might see the following:

Character One and Character Two are on stage, and they are scared. Painfully conscious of the audience, the lack of a script, and the driving need to be funny and clever, they have both shut down. In a panic, they have forgotten all training. Character One turns to Character Two and says “What should we do now?”

Character Two: “I don’t know!” Both stare helplessly at each other, unable to think of anything “funny” to say…and the scene dies a slow and painful death.

Now, the problem with the “no questions” rule is that it is an attempt to fix the symptom, instead of addressing the real issue, in the above scenario. Before the question is asked, the two improvisers are already outside of the creative space, and adding that negative rule just adds to the things they are doing wrong. The last thing they need is to be wrong. But as soon as the question is asked, Character One remembers the rule, and beats herself up for breaking it. Character Two remembers the rule, and resents her for asking.  Both players are stuck in a negative wasteland, now even farther outside of the creative space.

I shudder to think how many times I’ve seen that scene, and I’ll admit it–played that scene, in life and on stage.

Consider, then:

Character One and Character Two are on stage, and they are scared. Painfully conscious of the audience, the lack of a script, and the driving need to be funny and clever despite the advice that they don’t need to be either, they are both on the verge of shutting down. But suddenly Character One, remembering something from her training, breathes, relaxes, and opens up to really seeing Character Two. Without stopping to think, she says: 

When are we supposed to be at the party? It is tonight, right? Did you print out the email?”
“Character Two frantically pats his pockets…”Here it is! Yes, it’s tonight. And we’re late! We’ve got to hurry!” Character Two, delighted at having something to do, has remembered to say yes, and…

Suddenly the scene has someplace to go.  Character One has asked not one but three questions, questions that came from a genuine acknowledgement of the mutual fear that she and her partner feel, and perhaps from some unconscious connection with something she noticed about her scene partner–perhaps a patting of the pocket or a look around the stage.  Their adrenaline now has an outlet–frantic preparation for the party, or a mad dash for the car, or perhaps, some more of their training returning to them because of the release of their panic, they do a time dash to the party itself…

As they progress, these improvisers discover that the fear that fed this first scene is not necessary, that they won’t, in fact, die up there on stage. They learn that the “good cholesterol” questions that spring to mind are greatly liberating. As they get more comfortable, their natural curiosity can serve as the launch pad for hundreds of successful scenes.

So, the “no questions ” rule, for me, is a blind alley– a way that we can heighten the anxiety, rather than feed the natural curiosity of ourselves.  So, in true coaching fashion, I leave you with a few questions:

Where are the equivalents to the “no questions rule” in your mind? What symptoms do they address, and what state of discomfort is the actual root of those symptoms?  When do you find yourself open and curious when you face a challenge?

I am offering free sample coaching conversations. If you’d like to explore coaching with me, drop me an email at michaelburns@mopco.org.