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Everyone’s A Comedian? Not At Improv School

Improvisational theater isn’t just for aspiring comedians and performers anymore.

Improv classes and workshops are popping up in Seattle, Portland, Boise, Spokane and Eugene. Companies and business schools are taking notice.

Reporter Julia Flucht is in one of these classes and reports on how the improv mindset can produce creative results beyond the stage.

On stage at the Brody Theater in Portland, you have to react quickly to a scene that is always changing.

Performer Marilyn Divine says the lessons of improv 'will help you in life no matter what you do.'

Performer Marilyn Divine says the lessons of improv ‘will help you in life no matter what you do.’

Julia Flucht/OPB

One of my classmates is Gaby Alarcon. She is a graduate student at OHSU studying neuroscience. She says improv counterbalances her dry PHD research.

“I think the reason why I like it so much is that it gives me an outlet to be creative that I don’t typically get at my work.”

Alarcon is also here to overcome her shyness. It seems to be working.

The teacher of this class is performer and hairdresser Marilyn Divine.

“The basic rules of improv will help you in life no matter what you do,” she says.

And that basic rule is known among Improvers as “Yes, And…” In other words Divine says, “Start from a place of saying yes. Say yes, and…add a contribution. Play chivalrously, generously … be light on your feet.”

The “Yes, And…” principal is so effective in generating creativity and agile thinking that businesses have begun to notice.

“I’ve seen people take this and incredibly improve their morale and their collaboration and their productivity … just by looking for ‘where’s the yes,’” says Jeremy Richards, a contract project manager for Microsoft . He also runs corporate Improv classes for the Seattle theater, Unexpected Productions.

“Before I start jumping down your throat and tell you what’s wrong with your idea, your proposal, where can I say yes and the second part of that ‘and’ is, how can I build on that?”

Richards says his improv workshops are booming with local companies such as Microsoft, Nintendo, Amazon and REI. And it’s not just corporations using these techniques. Many top tier business schools are also teaching communication, innovation and group dynamics through the lessons of improv.

Bob Kulhan runs workshops at Duke, UCLA and Columbia. Kulhan says these techniques spread “…the idea that the team is more important than the person, the product is more important than the person, and the process itself is more important than one single individual.”

Kulhan especially notices how improv helps international students break through cultural and language barriers.

“International students will stop thinking about the right thing to say and focus their energy on simply reacting in real time, which is of course the root of improvisation — reacting; being focused and present in the moment and reacting honestly.”

Beyond MBA students and managers, there are still other people who benefit from ‘being focused and present in the moment’: Adults and children with ADHD.

That’s according to actor and comedian Patrick McKenna, who stars in the documentary, “ADD and Loving It.” He discovered a happy connection between his ADHD and his improv abilities when he saw the Toronto-based Second City improv troupe. McKenna was such a natural that he eventually landed a spot there. He felt he could let his creativity loose without the fear of saying something wrong.

“… it allowed me to speak my mind unedited and be celebrated for that and rewarded for that by the audiences’ laughter at Second City.”

Like McKenna, improv instructor Marilyn Divine says she also has ADHD and improv comes to her naturally.

“It really helped me with my focus,” she says. “It moved so fast and I could track everything and I could connect different elements that other people might not be able to see.”

There isn’t much research yet. But those who do improv say taking a break from life’s scripts is a useful skill anyone can learn.

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