Improv group uses performance skills for business training

If the group of Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber of Commerce volunteers gathered at a Tacoma senior living community earlier this month had expected the usual corporate training fare from Tacoma’s The Yes Works, they were deeply disappointed.

Instead of a pedantic Powerpoint or a lifeless lecture, the Chamber Ambassadors group discovered that The Yes Works had tossed out the customary corporate training script and instead brought live participatory improvisational theater to the dining room at Brookdale Allenmore.

The Yes Works group, co-founders Aaron Schmookler and Adam Utley and collaborator Rachel Lionheart, used skills developed during years of theater training and performances to bring the volunteers to their feet, and to get them talking and thinking actively.

The Yes Works was bringing improv techniques, now increasingly employed at such major business schools as Harvard and Stanford, to the Puget Sound area. Though the lay conception of improvisational theater is usually associated with comedy, The Yes Works’ theater-oriented training focuses on spontaneity and originality instead. That’s not saying that unintentional comedy may not result from time to time.

In their short taste of theater-style training, the chamber volunteers formed a circle and performed a series of simple physical and mental tasks, remembering names, quickly creating ideas and providing feedback to others. Ultimately, group members were performing those tasks in rapid succession, an exercise that raised the pace of communication while at the same time in some cases creating a bit of dynamic confusion.

One of the primary lessons of those brief exercises, said Schmookler, was unlearning the fear of failure. If a participant became confused by the rapid-fire exercise or made a mistake, they were coached to raise their hand and say, “Yeah for failure,” a mantra that the others in the group repeated.

Originality emerges from sessions where the participants aren’t hesitant to propose ideas — in this exercise, how to create a new successful event for the chamber — that deviate from the norm, The Yes Works performers told the ambassadors group.

Part of the lesson was for others to listen uncritically to what might seem at first to be wild ideas and then think how those ideas could be refined or improved.

“We’re all creators given the conditions and permission to do so,” author and improvisational actress Patricia Ryan Madison told The New York Times in an article about her book “Improv Wisdom: Don’t Prepare, Just Show Up.”

“All too often, there are corporate cultures that say: ‘Be creative, but don’t make any mistakes.’ Improv opens doors to doing things a different way.”

Not all of those ideas will be good or practical, said Schmookler. One lesson that improv teaches, he said, is to sense quickly how the idea is working and then to move on quickly and blamelessly to another idea that could be more successful.