Arts & Culture

From soldier to entrepreneur — via improv

Participants in a Yes Works improv workshop for transitioning military play a circle memory game. Yes Works member Rachel Lionheart (center) helps things along.
Participants in a Yes Works improv workshop for transitioning military play a circle memory game. Yes Works member Rachel Lionheart (center) helps things along.

On a rainy Tacoma Thursday morning, there’s two dozen servicemen (and one woman) standing in a circle in a downtown office space. Half of them are yelling out random words. Another quarter are calling out names, while the rest shout “Washington!” At any given time there are five or six running around. And everyone’s laughing.

If this doesn’t sound like any military exercise you’ve heard of, you’re not alone — none of these soldiers had ever done it either. But all of them played along, and ended up realizing that the fast-paced, meaningless game was, in fact, excellent training for both military life and the entrepreneurial careers they were moving into. It’s theater improv, and a young Tacoma business called The Yes Works is using that theatrical skill to help other entrepreneurs succeed.

“I’ve been incorporating improv exercises (into leadership training) for a long time,” said Yes Works co-founder Aaron Schmookler. “It’s really effective, and fun.”

“I’ve done a lot of work (coaching) individuals, and theirs is the most unique approach I’ve seen,” said Master Sgt. Joe Willis at Joint Base Lewis McChord, who went through The Yes Works’ entrepreneurship skills workshop last fall.

At the beginning, though, Willis thought the improv workshop would be like something out of Drew Carey’s “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” He wasn’t alone. In the University of Washington Tacoma office room that Thursday morning, Schmookler asked how many folks were expecting a zany comedy hour, and half-a-dozen hands shot up. Schmookler and his Yes Works colleagues Adam Utley and Rachel Lionheart (both seasoned improv actors) have been teaching improv to small-business folk for 18 months now, and working with the military in the Boots to Business program since October. The program, a partnership between JBLM and the Tacoma Chamber of Commerce, offers business training to active-duty military looking to transition into entrepreneurship, including a workshop by The Yes Works every other month.

“Improv is about going from networking, which everyone hates, to building relationships when you network,” said Schmookler, a theater professional who also directs, acts and teaches. “It works because it’s based on principles companies use: got your back, collaboration. It creates a shared vocabulary.”

And, Schmookler said, it also provides repetition — something crucial for breaking negative behavior habits and forming better ones that support professional goals.

That repetition, vocabulary and collaboration kick in from minute one of the Boots to Business workshop. After getting misconceptions out of the way (nobody’s expected to be witty) and airing some expectations (it will be fun, creative, on-the-fly and sometimes unsettling), The Yes Works team launches into what they call Pattern 1. Everyone forms a standing circle, and one by one exchange places with a random other person, saying their name as they do.

But before they begin, Utley coaches them in a new mantra: Raise your right hand, oath-style, and shout, “Yay for failing!” There’s laughter, but also palpable relief.

Actors, of course, fail a lot. They drop lines, stumble, break character — but the show has to go on. Knowing how to fail and keep going, however, isn’t just a theater skill.

“It helps people run an office, to deal with challenges, to get help when you need it and move on,” Schmookler said.

And in an improv workshop, you definitely learn that. As Pattern 1 gets faster and faster, names are forgotten, asked for, repeated and eventually remembered. But then Pattern 2 (exchanging places with a random word-association) and Pattern 3 (simply shouting “Washington!”) get thrown into the mix, and everyone starts failing a lot.

But no one minds. In fact, by the time the mental challenge has kicked in everyone’s happily running around, laughing and joshing each other, making new friends and trouble-spotting.

It’s not lost on The Yes Works.

“All we’re doing is running round and saying a word,” points out Utley to his students. “So why are we smiling? Because we’re connecting.”

Not just that, but understanding, too.

“I like this exercise,” said Sgt. Jacob Rodenmayer, during the seated reflection time. “In a big squadron it’s sometimes chaos, but there’s a method to the madness. Knowing what some of the problems are means knowing the solutions.”

“It makes you realize we’re all in the same boat — the same problems affect all of us,” said Cpl. Zachary Wirebaugh.

And for Sgt. Jeffrey Hauck, it creates empathy across ranks: “New soldiers don’t really understand the big picture,” he said. “Asking them to multitask like this would allow them to see what leaders do on a daily basis.”

It also breaks the ice to form deeper connections than the usual company bonding exercises and networking exchanges, other Yes Works clients said.

“There was real interaction and real connection,” said Dyann Lyon, a Gig Harbor entrepreneur who recently took a Yes Works workshop as part of the Alliance of Women-Owned Businesses network. “That doesn’t happen often. They created a space for that, physically, mentally and emotionally.”

“The circle technique was one of the best ice-breaker methods I’ve seen,” Willis said. “Knots and trust-falls are common but you don’t get the same emotional connection, and they just reinforce current leaders. This puts us on a level playing field.”

After everyone’s warmed up with the circle patterns, Schmookler and his colleagues sneak in some actual acting improv – although they don’t call it that. Asking people to pair up and agree on a fictitious business they’re partnering in, he then tells player A to come up with ideas and player B to refuse them, giving reasons why. It’s rapid-fire and spontaneous, and doesn’t even have to make sense — the point is to create a situation and deal with it. Then the players swap roles.

Schmookler and Utley give a demonstration, dead-pan funny. As the pairs get to work Utley roams, cracking the whip (“Faster! Three seconds for each suggestion!”) and encouraging the shy. It’s clear that this exercise, also, helps reverse usual leadership roles and helps creative solutions and relationships.

It also works well for the military, Willis said, giving people who are used to following orders a new box to think outside of.

All of this, of course, could potentially be done by any kind of leadership training. But the key difference with The Yes Works is that these aren’t just business-people – they’re actors. They take the spotlight with confidence and verve; they take part in each game with real conviction, upping the energy; they know the value of pace, repetition and body language. They make things fun, and tailor workshops to the participants.

And they also know just what it means to actually have someone’s back, when a performance is about to fall apart and only true teamwork can save it.

Finally, they’re nothing if not creative — exactly what transitioning military need, Willis said.

“Soldiers by and large are often afraid to admit they’re creative, and enjoy it,” he said. “So when you bring in folks like this, they break down emotional barriers to that (creative) coaching. … I would like to see The Yes Works incorporated into any Army training anywhere. This is the best program out there.”

Which would suit Schmookler just fine. He’s already getting more referrals, and aims to triple client investments within a year. He, Utley and Lionheart get paid, though they’re not yet drawing salaries.

“I’m ready to make money in the arts,” he said, bluntly.

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568, @rose_ponnekanti

Learn more

To find out more or book The Yes Works, call 253-301-8004 or email