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I rarely write about my background in improvisation because most people only equate it with its most familiar form; comedy. However, when improvisation, or improv was in its early stages of development in the 1930s, the intent was not to create a new form of theater or comedy, but to create a new way to teach. For millennia, training and education has relied on the lecture-based format, but lecture has been proven time and again to be the least effective means of educating. So, in the ‘30s, a group of educators, psychologists, and sociologist gathered to find a solution, and they discovered that hands-on, experience-based teaching was far more effective.
Improvisational techniques grew out of that movement. Much later, theater grabbed a hold of these techniques as a training tool; and later, comedy improv was borne. When Stevie Ray’s Improv Company was founded in 1989, we decided to focus on both sides of improv; training, as well as comedy. This business model calls upon me to be a comedian one night, and a corporate trainer the next. I’m told that being a Gemini helps. It was after a recent performance that I was reminded of an important lesson in fostering good teams.
Even as comedians, we take comedy seriously. Every performance is followed by a debrief. The troupe gathers and discusses every element of the show to look for areas of improvement. Improvisation is unscripted, so the performers make choices on the spot; some good, some not. As in any business, there are the public-facing members of the troupe, and the behind the scenes members. As is also true of many businesses, the choices that are the most discussed are the public-facing ones. Did a performer’s choice make the audience laugh? Did the choice fit our brand? (We eschew profanity or shock humor.) Every decision is examined for improvement.
The habit of only focusing on public-facing decisions can be expected. If your goal is to please the customer, the choices that affect that outcome are important. But doing so causes us to miss crucial areas of growth, because we miss the decisions made behind the scenes that also have a powerful impact on the customer experience. One of those people in an improv troupe is the Technical Director, or TD; the person in charge of sound and lights. In traditional theater, the sound and lighting is decided during rehearsal; no decisions are made during the performance. But in improv, the sound and lighting are created on the fly. And the TD shoulders the responsibility of the timing of the entire show. In classic improv (like what you see on the TV show Whose Line is it Anyway?), the performers are not allowed to decide when an improv piece is done. The TD decides when an improv is finished, and signals to the audience by blacking out the lights. When the lights come back on, the troupe moves on to the next improv piece.
Comedy is certainly all about timing, but the timing of the black-outs in an improv show carries ten-fold the weight. A black-out that is a few seconds too soon kills the energy of an improv piece. Black-out too late, and the perfect climax to a piece is lost. The greatest improv performance can be destroyed by a poorly timed black-out. So, why is it that a typical post-show debrief has almost no discussion about the choices the Technical Director made concerning black-outs? I have been an improv professional for nearly forty years. I have been a producer, director, and performer, as well as a technical director; and I can say from experience that the only time my black-outs were mentioned during a debrief was when I made a poor choice; when I ruined what would have been a great show. You would think that my years in the Tech Booth would make me more aware of the need to include the crucial behind-the-scenes decisions in company discussions, but I still end up focusing only on public-facing members of my company.
Do you focus only on public-facing staff? Sales, customer service, or consultants? Be sure to include the people behind the scenes pulling the lights switch. Their decisions can make or break how the public sees the rest of your team.
Stevie Ray is a keynote speaker and trainer, bringing his program, “The Roadmap to Influence” to organizations nationwide.