Don't Think Twice
A few weekends ago Danielle and I saw the movie Don’t Think Twice at Charleston’s Terrace Theatre. The fictional movie follows the lives of an improv comedy troupe called The Commune. The members of The Commune have a strong bond and they all aspire to make it to the big leagues and join the cast of Weekend Live, which is the movie’s equivalent of Saturday Night Live. I won’t spoil the ending, but I will say that not everyone can make it to the big leagues and that is a tough pill to swallow. The movie is hilarious and sweet and I would highly recommend it.
Steve Ramos the improv guy?
Why am I talking about this?.........Don’t Think Twice resonated with me because I have some history with improv comedy. Charleston has a local Improv Theatre called Theatre 99. In addition to providing weekly Improv performances, Theatre 99 also offers improv training to normal folks like me. After seeing one of my colleagues perform years ago, I decided to sign up for a class. I ended up taking 4 levels of classes, then took a few years off, and then picked it up again last year. The class I took last year was called ‘Finding Your Funny.’ I failed.
Before I get too far into this article, I need to highlight that I suck at improv. Although I have taken many classes and have generally improved with each class, I just don’t have it. Unfortunately, Saturday Night Live will not be calling.
But, I have a blast!
The reason that I have taken improv classes is because it is a ton of fun and because it helps me sharpen my skills as an architect. That’s right…improv comedy has helped me become a better architect.
Before I share my improv-archi-ninja secrets, I should explain some of the basics of Improv.
- Improv is short for improvisational theatre.
- Most improv scenes are comprised of two or more individuals who work together to build a story.
- An improv 'scene' typically begins with some sort of input from an audience member such as a person, place or situation. The improv performers then use the audience input to improvise a story.
- I like to think of improv as ping pong, as each person contributes a small piece of the story followed by the next person, and it goes back and forth. And the story blossoms from that interaction. And hopefully….hopefully hilarity ensues.
It is import to stress that every line and every action is improvised. Stand-up comedy is not improv. Saturday Night Live is sketch comedy and is not improv (although many Saturday Nigh Live performers came from improv.) Those forms of comedy are scripted. A good example of improv would be the show Whose Line Is It Anyway?
Back to me sucking at improv.
I think it is a good idea to try new things and get outside of your comfort zone.
Most folks including myself are hesitant to try new things and spend a majority of our time doing activities that are familiar and comfortable to us. We like to do things that we already excel at.
By trying new things and challenging yourself, you develop new abilities that you may not have developed otherwise. It's like when you help somebody move their apartment or do some yard work and the next day you have muscle soreness in areas that you never knew you had.
By trying improv, I have sharpened skills that have helped me become a better architect. So let’s get on with it!
How Improv Comedy Helped Me Become a Better Architect
#1 - The Golden Rule of Improv: ‘Yes, and...’
The first rule you learn in improv training is the principle of ‘Yes, and...’ This basic rule means that you accept whatever your fellow improv performers have just said and you add to it. You be a team player.
You can literally say ‘Yes, and…’ or you can just agree and add to the story however you please.
Let's do an example.
Imagine that an improv scene has just started and the very first line your improv partner says is “I can’t believe we are finally on our honeymoon.” A good ‘Yes, and…’ response might be, “I know..it’s crazy..I have always wanted to go to Jamaica!” With your response you accepted that you are on your honeymoon with this person and you added the location: Jamaica. Your improv scene is now off and running.
Now imagine if you did not follow the ‘Yes, and…’ rule. Imagine if you would have said “We are not on our honeymoon” or if you said, “I don’t even know you lady!” Although you might think this is funny and may get a laugh, either of those responses would put your improv partner in a predicament and the scene would likely struggle. It may even screech to a halt.
Using 'Yes, and...' in the workplace.
The ‘Yes, and…’ rule is very applicable to the work place and is especially useful in collaborative and creative environments such as the field of architecture.
Using ‘Yes, and…’ in Group Design Sessions
Architects often work in groups when working through design problems. We call these group design sessions: a charrette. Other times one architect may present their design to a group of other architects in a critique session. In either of these scenarios it is very helpful for everyone involved to follow the ‘Yes, and…’ rule. By accepting and adding to the pot, you will generate more ideas and reach the best solution in a quicker time. ‘Yes, and…’ will squeeze more creative mojo out of the group.
Let's do another example. Imagine a group of architects are working on the design of a new house.
Example: Architects using 'Yes, and...'
Architect 1: “I wonder if we should slide the entrance over here so that it aligns with the living room.”
Architect 2: “Yes, and if we shift the kitchen to the right, the entrance, living room and kitchen will all be aligned which will make an awesome first impression.”
Architect 1: “Yes and if we add a large window on this wall it will focus on that awesome tree.”
Architect 3: “This is not a great site for a house. The sun angle is horrendous. Are you sure the client can afford this?”
How did our architects do?
Architects 1 and 2 had the creative juices flowing. They were following the ‘Yes, and…’ rule and were adding to the process.
Architect 3 was an ass. Architect 3 did not follow ‘Yes, and…’. Although Architect 3 may have been correct about their comments, the way the input was added hurt the process. You can imagine the energy sucked out of the room.
At some point, you have probably worked with a person like Architect 3. You know…..that person that shits on ideas. That person is creativity kryptonite. That person does not know the ‘Yes, and…’ rule and can be counterproductive to collaboration.
Another way to describe it is that great synergies are created when folks follow the ‘Yes, and…’ rule.
#2 - Listening
Performing improv and being an architect is about listening.
One of my initial mistakes with improv was my desire to immediately spout out funny and ridiculous things. Rather than focus on my partner and slowly build a story I would often say something that was not relevant because I thought it would be funny. I was focused too much on myself and not my partner.
I quickly learned that the secret to improv was not trying to be funny, but instead, an intense focus on your partners. By focusing your attention to your partner's actions and dialogue, you will be more likely to add something of value. In other words, for you to successfully ‘Yes, and…’ you must first listen.
When you listen and ‘Yes, and…’ you will become in sync and when improv performers are totally in sync, that's when the magic happens.
It is the same in architecture.
In fact, being a good listener may be the most important trait for an architect. Just like my initial urge to say funny things during an improv scene, an architect must resist their initial urge to create a masterpiece and instead focus on listening to the problems and needs of their clients.
An architect must listen to their client, they must listen to their site, they must listen to the neighbors and civic groups involved with the project, they must listen to their colleagues and they must listen to themselves.
And just like in improv, that is when the magic happens. The best designs come out of intense listening.
#3 - Getting Comfortable being Uncomfortable
I think this title is pretty self-explanatory, but let me briefly elaborate.
Improv is a scary thing. Getting up on a stage and not knowing what you are about to say and do and hoping that something funny happens………..yikes!
As an architect, I give a ton of presentations and that can be scary. Practicing improv helped me deal with that fear.
Greg Tavares is a local improv star and has taught three of the classes I have taken at Theatre 99. Greg is actually one of the owners of Theatre 99 and as a professional improv performer, Greg has performed thousands of shows. Greg’s the man!
Despite his experience and expertise, even Greg Tavares admits to experiencing fear and anxiety before every improv show. In fact, Greg even did a Ted Talk called Fun Kills Fear:
No matter how much you practice something, there is always going to be a certain level of anxiety and stress before you step onto the stage.
I mentioned that I give presentations as an architect. We regularly present to our clients, design review boards and neighborhood groups. Before each presentation, I am thinking two things: I hope they like the design and I hope I don’t sound like a dumb-ass.
In improv it’s the same thing: I hope they like the comedy and I hope I don’t sound like a dumb-ass.
The nerves don’t go away, but I have a certain comfort level in that I have been there before. I have practiced. And what’s the worst that can happen?
That’s All Folks!
Well there, you have it. I believe that improv comedy has helped me be a better architect.
Improv taught me the golden rule of ‘Yes, and…’ Improv made me a better listener and improv made me comfortable being uncomfortable. These have been invaluable tools for me as an architect and I suspect that these tools would be useful for any profession.
Has anyone taken an improv class before? Or maybe some of my readers are actual improv performers. I’d love to hear some feedback.
For another article about architects and communication check out: