Go ahead, improv your life

I got the invitation months in advance. All day Saturday with no specific end time but a very specific and early start time: 9AM.
On a Saturday of all days. And all day that Saturday too.  It was like an invitation to a second job I never wanted and wasn’t getting paid for. Although it was for a volunteer organization, this assignment was something I like to term ‘mandatory volunteerism’. If I didn’t do this one-day event then I couldn’t be a part of this much sought after volunteer group. Accepting my fate, I RSVP’d yes.

So of course the months roll by and suddenly every cool and fun event invitation I get is for the Friday night before or the day of the event when I’m voluntarily mandatory volunteering my time. Invitations for:

  • House parties (someone even offered MY house as the venue so I wouldn’t have to travel. Gee thanks.)
  • Weddings
  • Baby showers
  • Bridal showers
  • Photography classes
  • Snowboarding
  • Shopping road trip to the states
  • A weekend getaway in Whistler
  • Birthday parties

And the list unfortunately goes on and on but to most events I had to RSVP with a very sad and regretful no can do.

If I ever doubted that fate had a sense of humour, it was definitely having a good LOL right now.

Typically having no respect for non-work related timelines, for this event I arrived uncharacteristically early.  It was scheduled to start @ 9am but I arrived @ 8:41 on the dot.

(Pause for applause)

Kicking off right at 9, we did a myriad of training sessions, classes, etc, blah, blah, blah – and at 3pm it was finally time. Teambuilding: 3pm to 5pm

Not only could this unknown activity be embarrassing, a nuisance, annoying or all of the above, there was also going to be 2 hours of it.

Having taken part in several team-building activities in the past, I felt I was prepared for the worst. Or so I thought.

Enter the teacher.

‘Scruffy’, ‘unkempt’ and ‘rough around the edges’ are the nicest adjectives I could use to describe this man and should be considered compliments. His confidence, however, was obvious and his self-assurance evident in his demeanour.  Wherever he got it from (his momma?), I wanted to know more about it. Except the name of his stylist. That’s a name he should definitely take to the grave.

His name, I forget, his specialty – improvisation. To date, my only knowledge of improv is the cool stuff seen on TV in Whose line is it anyway. Knowing how great and amazing those actors are and knowing how horrible and unfunny we currently were, I was immediately concerned about where this would be heading. I pictured myself on stage having to act out a skit that should have been funny but would only be funny-looking and cringed. Seeing no escape (the organizers smartly blocked the doors) I sat back and slowly started to sweat.

An evening of WHAT???

Improv 101

The theme of the day was this: Be creative, think on your feet, think quickly and be prepared for the unexpected.

Stage I – Have fun with it

We kicked it off with a round of musical-type chairs. I’m now convinced there’s nothing funnier than 30 grown adults running around trying to park their behinds on the last available chair like their tax deductible RRSP contributions depended on it. Fights ensued, bruises acquired and words exchanged. After calming us down and getting us to act our age (in some cases 3 times the age of the kids we were emulating) we (successfully?) moved onto the next stage.

Stage II – Letting go (of control)

Story Time: Sitting in a large circle, the first person says one word and then going clockwise we each had to say a word and get a story going. 10 words in, we had messed it up already. So concerned about not embarrassing ourselves or making a mistake when getting a word out, we stopped paying attention to what others were saying and had the tendency to throw out a nonsensical word. Also, you had to let go of trying to steer the story. As your contribution is one word only, you can’t control the direction the story takes. We laughed at ourselves and kept trying and kept getting it wrong.

Lesson #1: Even if someone says a nonsensical word, as a teammate, we need to support him or her and make it work.

Stage III – Flexibility is key

Broken down into smaller groups, we were asked to try to tell the story again. The hope was that in smaller groups we would fare better. I think he knew we wouldn’t do any better even in a smaller group and he was right.  One member of our group was overly nervous and despite our best efforts, couldn’t help us to construct a proper sentence. Even after many tries. Even after repeating the sentence to them several times. Especially even after explaining to them that their word was nonsensical in every nonsensical sense of the word and asking if they were 100% sure that the word they said was the one they wanted to use.

Yes. They were 100% sure.

If I ever doubted that fate was testing my patience, it was slowly working on my last nerve right then.

At that point (aka the boiling point), the teacher asked everyone (begged us?) to stop and made a quick review on our progress.

Lesson #1 (revisited): Even if someone says a nonsensical word, as a teammate, we need to support him or her and make it work.

The point he reiterated throughout the 2 hours was this: We couldn’t just look out for ourselves. We had to look out for others or as he put it ‘take care of your teammates’. The expected results would be an outpouring of trust so each person could excel at their role knowing there was someone there to back them up and watch out for them in any situation.

Unfortunately this didn’t make for better stories but luckily this wasn’t a creative writing class.

Surprisingly I got it. It clicked and it made sense. No Coles notes or ‘pay it forward’ for dummies required here. “Take care of your team mates” in business was a great idea and a great way to be.

The teacher explained in this exaggerated way: Seeing someone in distress, offer them assistance, help, your ear, food (via vending machines), water (via coffee), shelter, narcotics, an alibi and a getaway plan and if they deny all of it, that’s perfectly okay. The point is to let someone know that you care and you’re there. Even though you technically did nothing for them, your unscripted act of kindness will help them see the light in an otherwise dark work moment.

The following Monday I had my first opportunity to put it into play. Viewing someone in stress, I immediately offered to help out in any way I could (I started with the narcotics). After a brief discussion where they explained their dilemma, they were able to calm down, solve their situation on their own and thanked me for my time. Just for listening.

So it works??


This will be especially useful in a new position I begin on January 25th (details to follow, wink wink) where timelines will be tight, perfect execution the normal expectation, and adrenaline and stress levels will ebb and flow in one highly exciting energy wave of emotion.

It's MY line now. Bring it!

I’m now hooked on improv. Watching it on TV was one thing but having to try it out for yourself makes you truly appreciate the necessity each person has in relying on the others for support and backup to get the laugh. Looking at my own personal improv team (friends, family, well wishers, etc.) I’m encouraged to use this improv method all the time, in every aspect of life. I want to reach out and help others before they ask and allow them the opportunity to accept my assistance and/or to help themselves. I’ve always wanted to start a revolution (I just never knew for which cause) and this is certainly a good one to start as well as a great way to go through life.

No script required.

3 thoughts on “Go ahead, improv your life

    • Thanks for the compliment Kermit! I hope you had a chance to read some other stuff over the year. 🙂 Where’s your website/blog? I’d love to check out your stuff too! 🙂

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