[Originally published in January 2018, check out the gratis offer for a class on new improv techniques with Kelly Leonard below! ~AG]
"Improv is a language for your life and rules for engagement." ~ Kelly Leonard
“Yes, And” Comes into Play
I pay attention when synergy comes knocking at my door. When we are on the right path, we feel “in the zone”. When things come together in synergy it sparks ideas, then helps them come to life. I have lived in many cities as a nomadic creature. In Chicago, everything comes together on a better level for me and more quality connections happen!
Take this snippet from our recent cocktail soiree intros: I met my friend Ellen Feinberg when she called our sailing office and wanted to throw and elegant sailing party on Tall Ship Red Witch. I took the call, answered questions and then anticipated a few more, since I was a pro event manager and knew the logistics.
I wanted to keep the conversation going and to encourage Ellen’s ideas. And I love a good soiree! Ellen hired my “Team Charming” as an upgrade for personal service on board, and she hired me to attend as a guest. Of course I made a special cocktail to share with her guests (Red Witch Royale). We shared a few more sails and stories and, voila, Ellen and I became friends.
Ellen has been taking classes at The Second City in Chicago, known for improv, comedy and launching the careers of Stephen Colbert, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Bonnie Hunt, Steve Carrel, Jim and John Belushi, and the list goes on…
I remembered that Ellen brought up “Yes, And” in one of our discussions and had given the book to several of her colleagues. “Yes, And” is the improv concept and that sparked a best-selling book Yes, And: How improvisation reverses “No, But” Thinking and Improves Creativity and Collaboration, by Kelly Leonard and Tom Yorton.
Synergy Side 2
I was mingling at a Choose Chicago partner event and said hello to The Second City team. I mentioned that I go often to support my friend and her ensembles. Fun conversations ensued. I found out that Dawn, the Director of Marketing and Communications was from Pahoa, on Hawaii’s Big Island. Alohaaaah! I moved to the Big Island after I managed Ellen’s last sailing party, after I believed Red Witch was leaving Chicago. When I met Dawn, I was writing the novel version of the award-winning film “People Make Plans”, taking place in a castle where I had lived. I felt like we’d have some interesting things to say and I lobbed the idea of talking about “Yes, And”.
Dawn made the introduction to Kelly Leonard, co-author of the book and The Second City’s “Executive Director, Insights & Applied Improvisation”. A lively dinner discussion ensued with Dawn, Kelly, Ellen and me. Setting: My friends’ trattoria: Nando Milano in Wicker Park.
[Dawn, Ellen, Kelly & Akasha at our lively and lovely dinner @ Nando Milano.]
Nando Milano is my home court, so it feels easy for me to be authentic. We talked about our experience. I admit that I’ve had mixed feelings about improvisation. Perhaps I was a bit judgmental. I’ve been a writer by nature and nurture; I was a professional planner, so I felt that improv was not necessarily for me. This really is my own noise. I talk and write about shining through that realm. And I accept this invitation to shine through it.
Hark! The book lays down a quote from writer, legend and fellow St. Paulite, F. Scott Fitzgerald:
“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still maintain the ability to function.”
[Kelly Leonard, the housemade pasta truffle dish and a robust red wine that paired
nicely with the food and evening at Nando Milano.]
Aha! We talk about how effective individuals in an ensemble cast explore this dynamic. On one hand they need their ideas to be heard; on the other they are aware that their idea, no matter how brilliant, can be acted on only when embraced by others.
I scoped out stories a bit and ask Kelly about his dad who worked for WGN TV/Radio (and interviewer the original "Star Wars" in Chicago per his story)! And his father was extra proud when Kelly wanted to go into the family business, starting with The Second City. We hear tales of his humble beginning, and about taking chances that pay off artistically, commercially and professionally. Kelly illustrates a running theme of the evening: "Improv is a language for your life and rules for engagement. In business and in the real world, before you can get people to change their behavior, they have to change their attitudes. Before they change their attitudes, they have to understand that there’s a situation that needs to be viewed differently. Successful improv involves the ability to be 0in the moment, to master the roles of give and take and to surrender the need to always be right. It starts with casting or hiring.”
[Dawn Kuzinski, The Second City Director of Marketing and Communications,
dessert course at Nando; image: Akasha.]
Kelly asked if I have taken classes at The Second City. Well, no, I haven’t. I mentioned my time in college radio at the University of Minnesota. That was my improv. I had gone to a small, Catholic girls’ school in St. Paul, and was still on the shy side. Becoming a DJ and then getting my own specialty radio show about house/dance music let me explore. When I took on a co-host later we were able to riff off each other and hear what was working.
The book and our discussion elaborated on the importance of listening. Yes, pay extra attention on stage to what your cast members are introducing and developing as a thread and story line.
The Second City helped cement its status as a cornerstone of comedy and performance by listening to the audience. In previews, they listen to applause, surprise, groans and outbursts.
By flipping the “Yes, And” switch and being ready to collaborate, more ideas can percolate. When listening and paying attention, some ideas float better than others.
In the book I can see how the concepts of improv build on each other to create space and free creativity. So, improvisation is not always asking me to get on a literal stage and perform.
This idea especially piques my interest when Kelly brings it up: “Improv is a super power. That’s how important the change in attitude is. And it can shift an outcome that significantly.”
Kelly shared candid stories of editing the drafts and discussing them with Harper Collins. They too gave the authors a chance to experiment and find the truth of the book. They took more time to get in touch with what is working, and to be honest about what is not working. How do we get better in touch and in tune? Kelly mentioned that trying out ideas is a key. Failing is so important. Even failing publicly, to get in touch with what is working and what needs work. Public speaking is a known fear/discomfort for many of us.
Holding up the mirror
There’s a significant section in the book that discusses a game that I feel many people could relate to. It's called “Exposure”. The workshop instructor had half the class go up and stand in line on a stage. The other half of the class stayed in the audience, 10 feet away. Then they were told: “You look at us. And we’ll look at you.” That’s when the squirming started. As soon as everyone on stage was displaying some degree of discomfort, the instructor spoke. “Now, I want you to count every brick in the wall that you can see.” The fidgeting stopped a few seconds after that. Everyone has a task, and they were concentrating…and they were at ease. What improvisation does in a basic form, is to take the focus off ourselves and allow us to dial down personal judgement. When we’re concentrating and in the moment, there’s no room to be self-conscious or shaky. All of our energy goes into the task at hand.
This exercise helped the group learn that even when we feel as if all eyes are on us, we focus on getting the job done, we can control the discomfort.
They then expand with games that focus on improving listening, sharing and exchanging, all beginning level improvisational exercises that work like calisthenics for our social skills.
This exercise resonates with me. I feel more like the improv part of my brain is just not as developed, but it could be with practice, work and play. I recognize that my instinct to get a co-host for my radio show was a good one. Our work together was stronger that what I could have done on my own, as a recovering shy person.
I prepared questions and clarifications for our discussion, but in the spirit of listening, sharing and exchanging, we went with the flow for dinner. Yes, like “Chicago” the movie, I went a little fast and loose.
I’m not going to paraphrase every chapter of “Yes, And”, but I will share more discussion and insight as I put these ideas from the book into practice. Yes, I highly recommend Yes, And: How improvisation reverses “No, But” Thinking and Improves Creativity and Collaboration. I feel that that my attitude has changed. I consider myself a pretty creative person. The book and discussion helped spark more ideas in creativity and in flexing my writing muscles in new ways. I welcome the super power possibilities.
For our Twitter friends, I believe you’ll enjoy the section on an assignment with Clorox about laughing through the ick on Twitter...
Rave reviews on The Second City's: "She the People"
The Second City has a timely show with “She the People: Girlfriends’ Guide to Sisters Doing I for Themselves”. As The Second City puts it: We’ll bet you 72 cents on the dollar (or much, much less!) you’ll cheer for this sketch show entirely created, designed, and performed by the fearlessly funny women of The Second City! This mimosa-and-madness-fueled foray roasts the patriarchy, taking on everything from having it all…to having that sick feeling your government is trying to send you back to the Middle Ages. It’s time for women everywhere to collectively reclaim comedy!
90 minutes with a brief intermission. This show is Rated: R
["She the People" image, courtesy of The Second City]
Cast: Alex Bellisle, Carisa Barreca, Katie Caussin, Maria Randazzo, Alexis J. Roston, and Kimberly Michelle Vaughn
Director: Carly Heffernan
Musical Director: Mary Mahoney
“She The People examines life, liberty and the pursuit of hilariousness” – Rebellious Magazine
“She the People is both a zany and poignant survey of all things girl. …A reassuringly funny discussion about sexism and the world of women.” –The Real Chicago Get your tickets!
As we continue this journey of creativity, entrepreneurship and branding, I invite you to open your mind. I welcome your thoughts, insights, progress, applause and groans in the comment below and on our tweets and Instagram.
I wish that you may you have more “Yes, And” in your life and lessons this week!
Thanks again Dawn, Kelly, Ellen and Team Nando!
UPDATE + a excellent way to spark creativity
Had a great convo with Kelly Leonard again this week and we will help him launch a free class at Second City every Wednesday from 4pm to 7pm as part of our Second Science Project program with the Center for Decision Research at Chicago Booth.
They'll be doing some research but also leading participants through brand new customized improvisational exercises that are blended with insights from behavioral science.
The class in Chicago is free, just sign up to secure your spot!
Image: Executive Chef Alessio Vullo.
Check out the fun story I shared last week on Nando Milano, in step with Choose Chicago's #CRW18.
Stay tuned next week for the thriller discussion with Gillian Flynn + the first interview on my Davanti thriller series, in Italian and English with our U2 friends in Rome!
Salute & fair winds!
Author, Brand Expert, Filmmaker