Quilt teacher Mel Beach says she’s developed her public speaking skills, gained the ability to think on her feet, and come to terms with moving on from mistakes, all from taking comedy improv classes.
All improv photos by Doug Osterhout and shot during comedy improv shows performed at Made Up Theatre in Fremont, CA.
The ability to innovate is essential to any thriving business. Innovation means the ability to problem solve, overcome failure, actively listen, brainstorm, and collaborate with others. Recently, I found an unexpected source of innovation training: comedy improv classes. While not everyone may make the connection between my quilt teaching business and comedy improv, in fact, these classes have given me a competitive edge.
Since 2016, I’ve progressed through advanced classes, performed in countless shows, joined my theatre’s in-house troupe, served as a teaching assistant, and during the pandemic, continued to practice comedy improv via weekly Zoom sessions. These classes have been one of the best investments in my professional development. They’ve helped me create and confidently present innovative new lectures and workshops, forge new partnerships, and better serve my customers. Read on as I share my top five reasons why you should consider enrolling in a comedy improv classes, too.
Gain Confidence for Public Speaking
Comedy improv is the perfect opportunity for overcoming anxiety related to public speaking. To gain confidence speaking in front of large audiences, I started with an Intro to Comedy Improv class. After improvising an entire scene or performing a brand-new song based on a random audience member’s suggestion, presenting a lecture about my quilting journey is now a total breeze. Moreover, comedy improv teaches you to be focused on the moment, so much so, that I often forget there is an audience present until they break into a pop of laughter. This confidence has helped me to showcase my work via taped segments for The Quilt Show and Quilting Arts TV, podcasts, and video interviews, even those that are spur of the moment at quilt shows.
Mel and scene partner strike a starting pose for a game of Moving Bodies.
Think Fast on Your Feet
Audience suggestions drive each show, giving the cast mere seconds to think before diving into a fully improvised scene. Thankfully all that is needed to get a show started is for a performer to offer something small–perhaps a simple action (stirring a pot), naming a location (Welcome to Bon Appetit Restaurant), or naming your fellow scene partner when they join you on stage (Bonjour Chef Louis!). These simple offers help establish the environment and create opportunities for the scene to evolve organically with new ideas for exploring interesting relationships and events.
Improv exercises provide a safe environment to practice brainstorming and problem-solving skills. Sometimes it’s blurting out the first idea that comes to mind and sees where it may lead you in a scene or game. One game we play frequently is “5 Things” where you pose a prompt to a fellow player (ie. Name 5 Things in your car trunk) and they must quickly blurt out the first five things that come to mind without worrying whether they are right or wrong answers (ie. Spare tire, gym clothes, sleeping bag, a bag of dog food, and a yoga mat). This exercise helps you to remove your filter and just toss out ideas—good and bad—as potential starting points. In their book Yes, And: Lessons from The Second City, authors Kelly Leonard and Tom Yorton share that “when problem-solving, even a bad idea is just a bridge to a better idea!” Try this simple game the next time you need to brainstorm an enticing title for your new pattern or workshop or generate content for your next email newsletter.
Mel driving a scene forward with her scene partner.
Enhance Your Communication Skills
In a comedy improv show, the cast members, the host, and the audience all play a role in contributing to the success of the show. This requires effective communication to create cohesive and interesting scenes. In the fast-paced setting of most improv games, you may only have a few seconds to communicate an idea to your scene partner, so you learn to quickly verbalize your idea while pairing it with non-verbal gestures and emotions. Not only do you need to listen to an audience of 50 or more throwing out suggestions, but you must actively listen to your scene partners so you can honor their contributions. If you are busy thinking about your next line of dialogue, you may create some awkwardness when you start talking about wearing shorts and sandals after your partner already established that you both landed on Antarctica. Brrrr!
Refining your communication skills during practice sessions will generate more dynamic scenes, but will also help you to better serve participants in your workshops, foster stronger business collaborations, negotiate contracts, and respond to customer concerns.
Take Risks and Overcome Failure
Getting up on stage to perform a completely improvised show requires you to take risks. There’s a lot that can go wrong and mistakes are inevitable. There’s no time to lament or process what went wrong, as the show must go on.
Improv exercises often involve working at great speed and negotiating frequent changes, intentionally designed to yield mistakes. Not only do we learn to recover quickly from these “oops” moments, but we learn that making mistakes can inject laughter into the show.
Remember the goof-up about you suggesting wearing shorts and sandals after your scene partner announced you were both on Antarctica? This likely generated some laughter from the audience (and fellow cast members), which helps to diffuse any tension. We recover by justifying the mistake: Perhaps this scene takes place 50 years in the future and global warming has caused Antarctica to be a warm tropical destination? Now, you have really piqued the audience’s curiosity to see what happens next in this futuristic world!
Mistakes are bound to happen in your creative business as well. All too often, entrepreneurs may play it safe and miss out on amazing business opportunities. Leonard and Yorton argue that “the biggest threat to creativity is fear, especially the fear of failure. By deflating the negative power of failure, you erode fear and allow creativity to flourish.”
Learning to make mistakes, recover from them, and even celebrate them helps you to recover from rejection, failures, challenging customers, and any other unexpected hurdles that you’re likely to encounter as you grow your creative business. Leonard and Yorton go on to say “If you’re good at what you do, you’re going to fail because it means you are out there taking risks. Failing isn’t that bad…it’s the fear of failure that can be paralyzing.”
Last, but not least, comedy improv is highly interactive and loads of fun! Two-hour classes fly by since most of the exercises are presented as games where everyone laughs and wins. This supportive learning environment allows you to explore new skills and experiment with different characters, accents, and worlds. Anything is possible within the world of improv: Animals and inanimate objects can turn into talking characters, we can travel anywhere in the world or create fictional new worlds, and we can create all-new rules for our world. Not only do you get to explore interesting new relationships up on the stage, but off-stage too with your fellow improvisers. Your network will grow with fun-loving people who represent different industries, experiences, and cultures.
As we head into a new year, there are likely to be many unknowns impacting our businesses that will require us to problem solve, adapt, communicate, and seek out opportunities to laugh. Say “Yes, and” to enrolling in a comedy improv class. It will help your creative business thrive. I’ve listed several resources below to help you get started.
Start Your Improv Studies with these Recommended Resources:
- See a Show or Take a Class. Many theatres/training centers are now offering online options via Zoom/Twitch
- Comedy Sportz (25+ theatres located worldwide)
- Florida Studio Theatre (Sarasota, FL)
- Made Up Theatre (Fremont, CA) (check out their YouTube channel for 50+ Videos with Improv Tips)
- Magnet Theatre (based in NYC)
- The Second City (based in Chicago, Hollywood, and Toronto)
- Upright Citizens Brigade (based in Los Angeles, CA)
- Reading Materials
- Yes, And: How Improvisation Reverses “No, But” Thinking and Improves Creativity and Collaboration–Lessons from The Second City, by Kelly Leonard and Tom Yorton (2015).
- Improv Wisdom: Don’t Prepare, Just Show Up, by Patricia Ryan Madson (2005).
- Improvisation for the Spirit, by Katie Goodman (2008).
- Getting to “Yes And”: The Art of Business Improv, by Bob Kulhan and Chuck Crisafulli (2017).
Mel Beach is a San Jose, CA based quilt artist, teacher, and lecturer. She loves stretching her creativity through quilt challenges, working in a series, and performing comedy improv. You can learn more about Mel, her quilts, and teaching at www.melbeachquilts.com