Putting improv to work

Putting improv to work

LiQM_Mar2017_CoverThis article first appeared in the March 2017 issue of Life in Québec Magazine.

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By Michael Bourguignon

As it turns out, improv is not all fun and games. Exercises and activities that spark creative thinking that is both on the spot and out of the box have long been acknowledged as a boon to workplace performance.

In 2009, the Harvard Business Review published a case study examining the positive impact of “improvisational creativity” within organizations. Closer to home, Montrealer Joan Butterworth works as a training facilitator at McGill University – sometimes proudly referred to the Harvard of the North – where she leads improvisation workshops for students, staff and faculty.

She has also taught improv at Montréal’s Dawson College, and conducts experiential learning workshops she calls “playshops” that help participants build emotional intelligence and other skills to improve their performance at work and in life.

“We have no script for life, so how do you build social and emotional intelligence?” she asks. “We’re always improvising throughout our whole lives.”

An interest in theatre brought Butterworth to improv more than 20 years ago, and it wasn’t long before she started organizing events of her own.

At first, the participants were mainly friends from the acting community. Then someone from Toastmasters International, an international network of clubs for the improvement of public speaking, “showed up and wasLiQ_Sub_Dec2015 impressed by the format, the play and activity, and the challenge of taking risks and going beyond one’s comfort level.”

By realizing the potential offstage benefits of improv, Butterworth has been able to develop activities that play particularly well in the workplace.

Ron Abraira, a senior lecturer at Concordia University’s John Molson School of Business, attended one of Butterworth’s playshops a few years ago. He had read about the use of improv in MBA programs and thought it might help him in his lectures.

“I teach entrepreneurship, which involves creativity and imagination,” he says. “I think [improv] can benefit educators in improving their speaking skills and in feeling a little more comfortable to take some risks in the classroom. It can be challenging to hold an audience of students for very long, and it is getting even harder today with all of the technology they have at their fingertips.”

Again, it comes down to taking risks.

“Creativity, imagination and risk-taking are becoming more valued skills in many industries,” says Abraira. “I don’t want to generalize it, but we live in a more competitive world, and improv blends well with an entrepreneurial mindset.”

The ability to take risks often relies on trust, a truism common to life, work and improv.

“Someone said, the way to build trust is to take small risks together. Building trust with other people is very powerful,” says Butterworth, who starts her sessions with exercises and activities designed to gently encourage interaction – a comparatively small risk for some, though not all. “It’s not for everyone,” she says. “We had someone who was really introverted and tried to use improv to get out of their shell, but it was maybe too much.”

Once the interaction begins and the level of trust builds, though, the benefits can be exponential, both inside and outside the improv circle.

“People find it invigorating, having a chance to connect with people, to be vulnerable, to have and share a full range of emotions. It’s a big release, and it’s amazing how much energy you have afterward,” Butterworth says.

She cites one energized playshop participant who told her at the end of a role-playing exercise, “I say yes all the time; it was really nice to say no for a change.”

Abraira believes the self-awareness, grounding in the present moment and other aspects of improv that Butterworth espouses have the potential to spark better workplace relations.

“If a workplace is experiencing conflict, an afternoon of improv might lighten things up and get everyone in that workplace to have some trust in each other,” he says, adding that improv is able to accomplish this through nothing more complex than play, an activity too often – and wrongly – dismissed as being just for kids.


About Author

Michael Bourguignon

Michael Bourguignon is a language instructor, writer, editor, translator, narrator, and amateur stage actor. He is available for children's parties.

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