Lessons from Improv

So, on the way down from the high of the weekend’s (theatre) improvisation workshop at the Spontaneity Shop. Tom Salinsky is a great teacher - experienced, thoughtful, direct, entertaining. It’s a great experience, too, to participate in a group that’s being led so well, and I learned a lot just by watching and listening.

It’s tempting to mine the weekend for “things that will be useful in coaching”, which would detract from the challenge and pleasure of the activity in its own right - collaborating to create entertaining and coherent narrative under performance conditions. Of course there are any number of games and activities which sit nicely in a practice of coaching, either for their specific outcomes or just as warm-ups, re-energisers and so on (and yes, if you find yourself on the receiving end of my coaching, expect to participate in some of these in the months to come). But there are some more fundamental observations I’d like to make here.

In improv, being in a good state is really important. If you’re anxious, worried, stressed by the performance situation or by an expectation that you need to be funny or witty, you won’t be able to pay attention to what’s happening. Fear and ego are both enemies, and it’s hard to let go of either: if you’ve formed an idea of how a scene should go, which is then completely undermined by an offer from one of your collaborators, it’s so easy to get into a state of fighting for your idea. Tom’s always pointing out that children - at least up to the age of eight or nine - don’t have these problems to anywhere near the same extent.

With fear and ego out of the way, you start to be able to pay attention. Even working with a single partner, there’s a huge amount going on. You can’t take up an offer and build on it if you haven’t seen or heard it.

Improv is collaborative. A fundamental responsibility of the improviser is to give their partners a good time - if you’re not doing this, you’re wrecking the chances of ending up in the sort of good state that’s conducive to entertaining invention. You hope, of course, that your partners are doing the same for you: one of the great things about playing even the simplest improv games in a workshop like this is that it makes these issues painfully clear, at the same time giving you ways of talking about the outcomes and working on improving them.

There’s a huge amount of other stuff to work through, specific to the business of improv - establishing a scene, building consistent narrative, how we use posture and behaviour to convey status, techniques for raising the stakes in a story, introducing surprise, re-integrating elements from the earlier part of the scene. Like all practices, there’s a rich and evocative vocabulary, of offers, acceptances and blocks, pimps, gags, tilts: not only do these help the performer navigate a scene, they let us reflect, analyse, understand, improve.

Being in a good state, letting go of fear and ego, paying attention, giving others a good time. How many of us lead our work, or indeed personal, lives on this basis? We get attached to ideas, and are blind to others. We let our fears and anxieties keep us from confronting problems and issues. We worry about ourselves, our tasks, the problems we have to solve, and ignore the opportunity to make a team environment or relationship a place where all can be in a good state. All (all!) this takes is paying attention, having a repertoire of ways in which we can put energy into an environment rather than blocking its flow, and being dedicated to enlarging this repertoire.

3 Responses to “Lessons from Improv”

  • Cath Duncan responded:

    Great summation of some of the core lessons I got out of the weekend, David (especially the bit about getting out of fear and being fully present. I’ve thought for a while now that there are really only two core states - love or fear and for me it’s about being able to recognise when we’re in fear and always getting ourselves out of fear and into love.) It was great playing along with you and getting to know you better.

    I think it really rocks that there are people like you helping to bring these sorts of ideas into the world of work and especially the world of technology. Rock on!


  • David responded:

    Hi Cath,

    Thanks! The fear v. love thing is something I’ve explored in many ways, with many people, over the years: the more I go on, the more I realise how it’s all linked up. (As an aside, and apropos of nothing other than what’s on my mind this morning, I think the current craze for manifestos is all about fear, not love, which is why it makes me uneasy…)

  • Mark Stringer responded:


    Great to read this. I was a bit surprised, but very reassured to hear you talking about improvised theatre at the Extreme Tuesday Club.

    I’m very interested to be involved in any events that relate improvised theatre and Agile coaching.

    Thanks again,


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