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Why Bring Improv To Your Workplace?

It is fair to wonder why a place of business would choose to hire a professional comedian to teach its staff exercises normally reserved for aspiring comedians. 


What application does improv comedy really hold for a hedge fund?  Or a hospital?  Or an advertising agency? 


After all, these are serious places (except for the advertising agency) where decisions of life or death for people and fortunes are made.  Isn't improv really just a fun distraction best used to build team camaraderie, like bowling or a weekly happy hour? 

A Typical Corporate Comedian

No.  Improv is more than that. 


That isn't to say that a company or organization couldn't use improv primarily as a team-building tool.  Lots do.  And improv is infectiously fun, so using it for team building makes a lot of sense. ​


But improv comedy exercises can be used for so much more.  In fact, they can be used effectively to hone just about any soft skill useful in a business environment. 


To understand why, a little bit of history about the origin of modern improv comedy is very helpful.

Modern improv comedy was created by Viola Spolin in the 1920s when she directed an amateur youth theater program for Hull House in Chicago. The young adults enrolled in this program came from diverse cultures and spoke a variety of languages, which created substantial communication barriers for them. Viola noticed that many of these students seemed isolated and were restrained by fear. 

Viola Spolin
Viola's Students

Leaning on her background in theater she created spontaneous games they could play together with two important  features: 

          1) They did not require participants to speak the same language

          2) The goal of the exercises was to make the other participants feel good about themselves

Viola's son, Paul Sills, would later take these same exercises and use them to train the actors at the theater he founded, Second City. This is the reason we primarily associate improv with comedy today.

The Compass Players, a precursor to Second City

If Paul had followed a different career path, perhaps we would primarily associate improv exercises with leadership, or negotiation, or customer service.  Perhaps we would primarily associate improv with any profession that requires great communication skills and great empathy. Because at its core, that's what improv comedy exercises are all about: communicating with, understanding, and supporting others. 

Today improv is commonly used as a professional training tool and is often selected as a fun activity at corporate retreats, conferences, quarterly meetings and team morale get togethers.  Common focuses for such workshops include:

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