Improv: The show where everything’s made up and the points don’t matter! Or such were the words of infamous “Whose Line is it Anyway” host Drew Carey. Improv shows are a world where every line, every scene, every movement is made up on the spot. Nothing is memorized, and nothing is written ahead of time.
So why, then, do improv teams have practice and rehearsals, and what can we learn from them to help with our own creative behavior?
For the answer, I sat down with Josh Chamberlin, co-owner of Teehee’s Comedy Club in Des Moines, Iowa, known for its hilarious improv showcases and classes. The full, highly-informative interview is embedded below.
Structure Gives You Freedom
Improv teams don’t practice lines, but each improv game has a structure. The game may involve only speaking in questions, or having an audience member move your arms, or forcing one person to always be sitting, another standing, and another leaning. Learning the structure and embracing the structure gives you the freedom to play around and build your scene around the structure. It gives you something safe to lean on and build off of.
Creative thinking also involves structure. In my previous posts, I discuss cycles of divergent and convergent thinking. Practicing these cycles and how to use them, and practicing divergent thinking techniques, such as SCAMPER or Forced Connections, helps you become familiar with the tools and the structure, which, over time, makes it easier for you to lean on them and use them when you have a creative challenge.
“People think improv is a lot more risky than it really is,” Chamberlin said, “but most improv has a specific structure to it. Then, you don’t have to worry about everything, you just have to worry about that one little piece. That freedom lets people risk more, it lets people take more chances. They’re free to create.”
Improv comedians rely on this fundamental concept. Chamberlin says, “‘Yes, and…’ is really the cornerstone of what we do in improv. ‘Yes, and…’ is agreeing with whatever is said or done, and then building off it. It’s all about not denying that other person of whatever they’re giving to the scene.”
Improv comedians build off of each other, but they can’t build off each other if they reject the ideas others give. “Look at everything anyone gives you as a gift,” Chamberlin said. “Isn’t it easier just to say ‘Yes’ to things? That doesn’t mean that it’s going to be gold every time, just have a discussion and see where it goes.”
In creative ideation, every idea that is proposed is at least worth writing down. Not every idea has to be the golden idea, the best idea, or even really a good idea. The goal in creative ideation is having discussions that lead to solutions, and all ideas can be fuel for the discussion. This is especially true if you can build off of your ideas or others’ ideas. Or, as Chamberlin likes to say, “More ideas mean more good ideas.” Not every idea has to be the right one, but the more ideas you generate, the more likely you are to find a good, creative idea.
Chamberlin encourages his teams not just to practice with each other, but also to go hang out with each other. They learn each other’s strengths and interests. “I may not know about cars,” Chamberlin explains, “but if I know Dave knows a lot about cars, I know he can carry a scene with cars.” This level of comfort with each other also helps them become better at building off of the little nuggets they give you during the scene, and makes it easier to make connections between them.
Connection-making is one of the most important skills in creativity. Just like improv comedians can learn to become better at making connections between each other over time and as a result of their practice, you can also learn to see connections easier. Connections are made as a result of curiosity. While curiosity is innate, taking time to regularly practice being curious strengthens this skill. The easiest way is simply to talk about it. Grab a friend, ask them what they have been curious about this week, and explain to your friend what you have been curious about this week.
“Perfect often gets in the way of good.”
That’s my favorite quote from this interview! I asked Chamberlin what he sees when new improvisers grow into experienced improvisers. In his experience, everyone who does well at improv gets over judging, both themselves and others. Too often, new improvisers try too hard to be funny, and put too much pressure on themselves to be perfect.
The key to being good, however, isn’t being perfect; it’s the ability to realize that everyone can bring a little piece. You bring a little piece, they bring a little piece, and not every piece has to be gold, but, eventually, you create something unique to the group that no one person could have created on their own.
Here at Creative Dave, I talk a lot about withholding judgement. The desire to be perfect, to have the brilliant idea, or to justify your intelligence gets in the way of creative ideation. But, when ideating, the goal isn’t to have the great idea at the beginning; the goal is to have your great idea by the end. The great idea that comes by the end is a result of the process, not the result of individual genius. Trying to be perfect at the beginning will make it harder to be good at the end.
Improv and Improve
The reason I reached out to Josh Chamberlin is because many of the same skills improvisers rely on are the same needed for creative thinking, especially connection-making and divergent thinking. What I also wanted to show is that these are skills you can practice and improve over time.
With time and practice, improv comedians become more comfortable with each other, more comfortable with improv structures, and strengthen their ability to make connections and build off of each other.
With time and practice, you can learn to improve your creative skills! I recently read a fascinating study on the ability to improve creative skills, and this study cited an experiment with the city of Philadelphia. A team of researchers worked with city employees, coaching them on creative practices and the creative problem-solving process.
Eight months after their short training session, managers reported a 55% increase in the number of new ideas per employee, and the city saw a $600,000 increase in new revenues, with a $3.5 million decrease in expenditures without many job cuts. All of this was as a result of creative coaching of their employees.
Just like improv comedy, good creativity doesn’t just happen. Practice helps us get better.
Josh Chamberlin is the co-owner of Teehee’s Comedy Club, where he is also a teacher and performer. You can contact him for coaching and consulting at firstname.lastname@example.org, and see information on their website, www.teeheescomedy.com
With practice, you can Activate Your Genius Mode. For more tips on how to practice creative skills, to hear more, ,,contact Creative Dave to book a workshop or motivational speech for your school or organization before his roster is full for the year!
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