Experiment 4 Long Form Improvisation Comedy

One of the main reasons for my sabbatical is to practice self care and have fun. Too often my work was impeding me from having fun either through constant travel or through sheer exhaustion. Over the past 8 months I have embarked on a strategy of not travelling on Mondays so that I can learn and perform improv. Not only has this experiment been fun but it’s such a useful medium to learn collaboration, empathy, listening and presence.
Modern long form improv comedy hails from Chicago. Think Tina Fey, Stephen Colbert and Amy Poehler. Improv comedy is a form of a live theatre where the plot, characters and dialogue are made up in the moment. It’s one part terrifying and one part exciting. One of the main reasons I love improv is that it’s very much about collaboration, simple rules, empathy, listening and vulnerability.
Some lessons for me..


Improv comedy is all about collaboration. You learn early on to trust your partner and that they are a genius. One rule that helps in improv is the is ‘Yes, and . . .’rule ’ This rule is about responding positively to what the other performer is providing you with, and adding a statement that helps the scene progress. If I don’t react positively then the scene can’t go anywhere. For example, if one performer says, ‘It’s hot in here,’ and you respond, ‘It’s not too bad,’ then the scene dies. However, if you respond positively by saying ‘Yes, it is, but what did you expect when we’re in hell?’ then the scene has somewhere to go.

‘Yes, and’ is a simple rule that helps performers navigate the uncertainty of performing without a script but also sends a clear message that I have your back. If we go into scenes with the view that our partner is a genius then we have so much more we can play with. Imagine how better teams could be if individuals could see the best in their colleagues and to see how their best can help us.

Deep Listening and Presence

As a coach you have to listen deeply to others but improv comedy took this to a new level but also challenged my sense of listening. The success of improv is all about listening deeply to your partner and not thinking about what you might say. Sound familiar? Too often we listen for our turn to speak or to solve a problem.

In improv it is all about being present and listening to everything your partner says because that is what you respond to. You have to get out of your head and be completely in the moment. This was a lesson I learnt the hard way. I had to repeat my level 2 class (which I finally passed) because the feedback from my teacher was that I needed to be a better listener and better respond to what they are saying rather than what I wanted to say. It’s incredibly hard but so valuable. Deeply listening is all about being there for other person and to truly hear what they are saying.

Vulnerability and stepping outside your comfort zone

This has been the ongoing theme of my sabbatical and experiments. Every time I stepped outside my comfort zone I have felt vulnerable. This had led to enormous growth. In the case of improv comedy it took some time for the penny to drop. I recognised that I had to let go of expectations, of feeling incompetent and worrying about what my classmates might think (knowing that my class had stand up comics, actors and drama teachers).

I was nervous about doing accents and looking silly playing a particular character. I learnt, like all the other experiences, that vulnerability really challenges me but it’s the thing that leads to growth. I know that I want to be successful in improv comedy I have to lean into incompetence and vulnerability and let go of any fears I might have.

Of all the things I have done this has taught me the most about vulnerability and letting go of any fear. It has also made me realise that I don’t want fear to stop me from doing something I might love. So often we let fear and what people might think impede our ability to learn and grow. Leaning in and feeling incompetent provides so much opportunity for fun, growth and kindness (particularly to one’s self).

I loved this experiment and deciding on whether I want to do more of it. It really pushed my buttons but I had so much fun and was challenged constantly.

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