Category Archives: Improvisation

What can business learn from a 33 hour long performance?

Last week I joined 30 other performers taking part in a thirty three hour long show that was completely improvised. It had comedy, high drama, songs and characters including a space pirate, a giant slug and a Cyberman (from Doctor Who) – that was me.

You’d be right to wonder how this is relevant to proper ‘work’, but when you strip away the theatrical of Liverpool’s 8th annual ‘improvathon‘ you’ll see a very impressive model of project management played out at speed.

 

Improvisation isn’t making things up. There are rules and constraints that help unlock the creativity for high levels of collaboration and achievement, for example a six person ‘safety song’ and dance that was ‘slip, trips and falls’. Impressive not only in line and verse, but also as it was a great metaphor for good improvisation. Safety culture in the workplace aims for interdependence over independence, and so does improvisation. If we have each others back, we do good work and we look great too.

I’ve recently become interested in agile development. An approach to project management that favours interaction over process, and responding to change over ‘end goals’ to achieve a more satisfying outcome (and a happy client). I’m not an agile developer but I have been a web developer for twenty years and an improviser for ten.

The improvathon is played out in two hour ‘episode’ chunks with performers creating and discovering stories through interaction. Over the course of the show new cast members join, some leave and some stay awake (and present) for the entire duration fuelled by adrenaline, coffee and the buzz of the show. A 15 minute break between these episodes is just time enough for the director, overseeing the scenes, to gently highlight the more compelling stories from the previous section and suggest new points of focus. Moving events forward towards a rewarding outcome.

During the show, I failed in my many evil attempts at ‘conversions’ turning other characters into cybermen – to create and army of robotic cybermen – that’s just what they do. I was reminded of a chat with a scrum master (Paul Goddard) who used the term ‘conversion’ to refer to the moment when a newcomer to improv clicks with the ‘yes and’ principle and comprehends the wider implications and values. Improv isn’t just for actors or extroverts, it’s for everyone in or out of the workplace.

It’s also much better than being turned into a cyberman.

The Long Hot Scenic Way Round.

Wed/Thur. For the opening of tournament there’s a big parade down the streets, where all the teams march to the venue. Manchester are the first team to play against L.A. and although we concede the win, is it’s a great show with about 600 people in the enormous Atheneum Theatre.

Chicago put on parties every night and for the first night it’s dancing and pizza. This being Chicago the pizzas are immense and I think it’s the first time I’ve seen a real ‘pizza pie’ which is basically a giant wedge of cheese so big you can loose meatballs inside it. It’s so tasty I can almost feel chest pains eating it, but it’s so good I don’t want to stop. We’ve also found ‘Forever Yogurt’, a serve yourself frozen yoghurt shop that does flavours like ‘cake batter’.

The team are all here and the next few days are a flurry of shows and workshops. I take a Meisner workshop, which is quite hardcore and somthing I’ve done breifly before. It’s all about learning how to understand and read the emotion within performance, and the theory goes pretty deep and you could spend years studying it here if you wanted to.

Chicago is recognised as the home of improvisation, and evidence of how improv is still in it’s infancy in the UK is evident in the wealth of venues here, at least a handful large and small across the city. All dedicated improv theatre venues show 2 or 3 improv shows every night of the week. Some Longform, shortform, drama, comedy, musical and even shakespearean, all unique shows in their own right. Some are ok, some really show high end at it’s best.

Saturday. As a group we all head into the city planning to meet up at the beach on Lake Michigan, but we don’t find it. Instead we find Navy pier so sit down for a bit. Then we go for food at the Chicago Cheesecake factory and it takes us one hour and forty minutes to get a table, so I sit there for a bit. Once we get served I decide I don’t want cheesecake after all.

The Tournament final is L.A versus Chicago and Chicago win. My money was on LA. At the final wrap party the bar, at my request, has ordered in some cider. There is cause for rejoicing.

Monday. The final day of our honeymoon, and I’m ready to go home. I feel like I’ve been ready to go home for the last week it’s been so hot. We make good on our gift from Bron’s mate Liz and have a grilled cheese sandwich at ‘Cheesie’s!’ which is awesome and I promise it will be the last fattening thing I eat…apart from the frozen yogurt and the pulled chicken sandwich. Myself Bron and Lynn and see the Bean, a giant shiney metal baked bean shaped object in the middle of a park. Temperatures have soared again the walking close to it is like being in an oven.

For the last day we stay with Nate and Nick, two comedysportz guys from Chicago, Nate is big on borad games and has a really impressive collection, and Nick is gearing up for the Edinburgh festival with Baby Wants Candy, his musical improv group.

The rest is a blur of taxi’s and aeroplanes and awkward goodbyes as I wave bye to Lynn as she disappears up an escalator only to see her minutes later. The British airways flight to London is probably the worst flight I’ve ever had with it’s broken in-flight entertainment, seats designed for people with one leg and and stale buns. I am however quite excited about getting home. Bron’s mum takes us from the airport and everything I’ve seen on the route home that I’ve seen a million times before has a weird ‘otherness’ to it because I’ve been away so long.

Open Door. Stroke Cat. Kiss Wife. Well done. It’s over. Oh yeah, I can now say I’ve been around the world in 44 days.