Coaching As Improv: More On Saying Yes

Okay, coaches, where were we? Oh yeah, I remember. I had a long list of gerunds, then a long (weak) chat about “yes”. Let’s take another swing today.

I grew up on stage. I started acting in community theatre at age 6, and I became instantly fervently addicted. I wanted to very much to be an actor, and I studied it as I study everything, pretty much ‘all in’. Among many other fascinating enterprises, I studied and practiced improv. In this form of theatre, a couple-three of us are given a situation, and we aim to collaborate together, without script, to act out a scene without setting.

In improv, the key skill is opportunistically forwarding the scenario in direct response to the lines and actions of the other other players. One actor makes a move — a line, an action, something — and the other players add to that move their own moves, with the goal being nothing more than carrying along the scenario wherever it goes. At any given time, an actor is called on to take all that is going on and finding a way to take another step. There are patterns to this, but lots of twists and turns and exceptions. If you’ve never taken an improv class, I highly recommend the experience.

In modern improv theory, we say that each individual actor is “saying yes”. This shorthand term is how we say that the purpose of each new action is just to extend, enhance, elaborate, elucidate, elevate the flow of action that has preceded it. It’s a very odd thing, improv. In some ways, it seems and feels quite hard. In other ways, it’s almost ridiculously easy.

It’s hard because no one is in charge, no single vision guides the action. All improv scenes are in a permanent state of uncertainty. If you’re a control freak — I am — this takes quite some getting used to.

It’s easy, tho, too, because saying “yes” isn’t a singular thing. There are always lots of ways to do it. An individual actor is presented with a shifting array of choices. Because we don’t have that single vision, the emerging performance is made of all of our visions, and all of the choices we take. This means that any given singular choice is (relatively) low-weight. Think of the scene as “distributed” across each line from each actor. No one line is the most important line. No choice is the critical choice that must be correct. It’s quite liberating, this relative per-decision unimportance.

Now, I don’t mean to suggest that all improv troupes or sessions are equally successful. Some seem plain. Some go quite south. Some rocket beyond our wildest expectations. There are a lot of factors involved. There is the emerging unity of vision. Tho we start with only the slightest sketch of a scene, the best troupes feel each others’ direction out quickly, and soon we’re headed in a direction we all broadly agree to. (“Broadly” is important here.)

Part of that emerging unity is simple trust. The kind of pro improv troupes you’re used to seeing have often worked together for quite a while, and besides which, they all believe in the process. That helps a lot.

There are also themes and archetypes. These are the patterns, of plot and character respectively, that experienced improv’ers rely on as invention engines.

And of course, a key factor is the capabilities and taste of the individual actors. Skill counts, here as in all human endeavors. The most skilled comedy improv folks are simply stunning.

To coaching, then.

Do you begin to see how coaching works for me? I see myself as being in an improv troupe. I seek to be the best improv artist I know how to be. I seek to say yes to the lines of the other actors in the scene, to find all the small ways by which to forward the scenario. If this analogy is to work, we have to say some words about the scenario. In improv, that scenario is a lightweight sketch of a few sentences. It is the lightest of targets. In fact, sometimes an amazing thing happens: an improv session will take a scenario like this and completely break out of it, spiraling into something far outside the basic sketch.

But if you’re a growing coach, well, oh my. Your head is most likely full of a very large and very detailed scenario, your prescription for excellent software development. (for the purposes of this discussion, it doesn’t really matter what decal you paste on your flavor of software development method. In this, they’re pretty much all alike.) The “scenario-in-the-head” is in more or less continuous tension with the ‘scenario-unfolding”. And how we navigate that tension defines us as coaches.

The recurring question: is it more important to adhere to the scenario in the head — the method, framework, endpoint — or is it more important to take that scenario as a launchpad and build and support the fluent unfolding of the improv scene? The good news is you don’t have to answer it just once. That’s also the bad news. It has to come up over and over again, and that’s exactly right. And the broad trend of your various answers is a critical part of defining how you fare as a coach.

By now I’m sure you know where my own answers trend. I favor the fluent unfolding of possibility over the stricture of adherence to method. I do this for reasons that are practical, theoretical, philosophical, and above all firmly based in my 20 year experience of doing all this.

Practical: This works better in the sense of creating more on-the-ground happiness from others with my work.

Theoretical: Our methods just aren’t that reliable, that I should be insisting everyone around me adhere to them. I simply don’t know enough or strongly enough to force adherence to a scenario I’ve sketched.

Philosophical: I’ve never met a formal scenario structure for any mildly rich sociotechnical domain that I haven’t also seen utilized to cause untold harm to its practitioners and their neighbors. I have come to believe they are impossible.

Wrapping up: The long list of gerunds is about the many different behaviors I use to say yes — to create and foster improvised opportunistic “better” with the troupes of geeks I work with for a living. If this is all too foreign, here’s a couple of homework assignments. Watch a couple of episodes of “whose line is it anyway?”, US or UK either one. Read a book on improv. Watch an episode of critical role from geek and sundry. Listen to Dixieland.

You could also go to your favorite restaurant with your three most trusted friends and watch the conversation unfold. Or you could watch virtually any pro team sport with a camera above the action.

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