08 November 2006
Heather West
Heather West

What if the key to creativity is conquering fear? That s what the leaders of the Brave New Workshop improv theater believe. And their seven mind-expanding exercises can help you tap into your own stream of creativity.

If Tyler Durden ran Improv Club instead of Fight Club, he would have imposed these rules:
The first rule of improv is trust the process.
The second rule of improv is TRUST the PROCESS.
The third rule of improv is listen well.
The fourth rule of improv is say, yes and
The fifth rule of improv is defer judgement.
If tonight is your first time at Improv Club, you must improv.

John Sweeney and Jenni Lilledahl would be worthy rivals to Durden s masochistic approach to sudden and dramatic corporate revolution. They are the leaders of a movement. They passionately believe that improvisation can change the world. Their theater, the Minneapolis-based Brave New Workshop, is among Minnesota s fastest-growing businesses, and their names can be found on local young people to watch lists. Without accepting any grant money, Sweeney and Lilledahl run a school, lead a nonprofit organization and manage the oldest ongoing satirical comedy theater in the country.

Older than Saturday Night Live, the Brave New Workshop, which opened in 1958, has evolved into a training ground for improvisational technique. Not just for actors and comedians, Brave New Workshop has given birth to Brave New Institute, an offshoot of the theater for students, businesspeople or anyone interested in exploring their own
spontaneous creativity. It s amazing to see how improv changes people, Sweeney says. If someone comes into a performance and they ve had a bad day at work or their car didn t start, but they still can lose themselves in the spirit of improv and leave smiling and laughing, that s powerful.

Improv = Results
Brave New Institute trainers take their knowledge of improvisation directly to the business world. Unlike the average creativity consultant, Sweeney says BNI trainers present tangible tools that help people be more creative the very next day. When I listen to the traditional creativity consultant or motivational speaker, it s teamwork rah rah courage rah rah gumption. Snore! When we work with a corporate group, we want them to walk out and, five to 10 minutes after the experience, feel like they can better access their creativity.

Lilledahl interjects: We all have the same ability to be creative; it s just how well you access it. And the first step in creating creativity is safety. People don t need to be more creative. They need a safe environment to share the creat- ivity within them. Last fall, Sweeney and Lilledahl experienced this firsthand when they led a workshop at the annual AIGA/Minnesota Design Camp. I was eating dinner with the coolest frickin people who are a hell of a lot more creative than I am, Sweeney says, but once status, budget and time frames enter the picture, they can be stifled. They ve been hit too many times with the corporate newspaper that damages so many creative people that corporate newspaper swat that corrects us by saying, The client will never buy that.

Blocking the Swat
Sweeney and Lilledahl agree that the hardest lesson to teach people, even designers, is to defer judgement to eradicate brainstorming sessions that come to an abrupt halt when someone says, We tried that. It didn t work.

Sweeney shares an example of the corporate newspaper that hit him before he left a successful career in real estate: Every year we would go on this sales retreat. The company would blow all this money on a trip, hot tubs and booze, and we would come up with ideas that we thought would help us do our jobs better and make more money for the company. In the end, they would scrap all the ideas, waste all this money and time, and tell us to increase sales by 4%.

Most ideas never get the chance to get off the ground, he continues. I find this especially sad in ad agencies and design departments. If you re a company that produces creative ideas, shouldn t more ideas be better? If I could truly influence companies to look at investing their money in long-term growth, I would tell them to spend as much money to do whatever it takes to make their employees feel safe. If everyone felt safe enough to share the best of their creativity, the world would change.

Safety Net
Sweeney and Lilledahl have seen the personal transformation that improvisational training can offer people when they feel safe. Sweeney explains, Their shoulders raise, their skin glows, the volume of their voice increases. I m not making this up. It sounds incredible, but that is really what it is incredible to see how the most timid people can find strength and self-confidence because they re accepted. Lilledahl adds, We play this game called Everybody Go to help warm up a group. It builds almost instant trust with the group by asking everyone to voice a word or phrase and having everyone repeat what was just said. This reinforces the idea that your ideas are welcome here, even if they don t make sense. With a safe environment and a little practice you can take any idea and make it great.

This feeling of safety is what allows people, all people, to find their creative selves. Improv doesn t teach people how to be more creative or how to think; it shows you that there are an infinite number of ideas in the universe and you just have to open yourself up to them, Sweeney explains. There s a terrific freedom in knowing that you re not responsible for coming up with these ideas, you re just accessing them. This mentality also helps remove the stigma or reward of who can take credit for the idea. When you open yourself up as a conduit to the universe, we call it going to the white light.

Professional Inspiration
As a professional art director, Mary Gilroy sought inspiration from the usual multitude of design annuals, seminars and magazine profiles of the latest award-winning design firms. It was an oppressive amount of inspiration, she says. I didn t know whether to be inspired or open a vein. This month everything is flush-left Bodoni; next month it s centered Goudy.

Now, as the director of corporate services for Brave New Institute, Gilroy enjoys hearing feedback from enthusiastic improv workshop participants who have found their own inspiration, rather than plagiarizing what someone did on p. 47.

Design instructor and BNI student Judith Froemming agrees: Instead of what might be trendy or hip, the essence of being a good artist is to recognize that creation comes out of the flow of the moment. We re an extremely goal-oriented, fast food-oriented culture. Improv teaches you to be prepared for the happy accident. You can t be disappointed that it s not going the way you planned it. You have to be free and open enough to experience it. The myth of the independent artist is only a myth, Froemming continues. It doesn t matter if you freelance or work in-house, you have to share the desire to create value for your client. The ensemble approach is much more successful than just having a single star. The client s work needs to be the star, and everyone else needs to be there to support that mutual goal by supporting each other.

Froemming believes that the lessons of improvisational theater should be a requirement for all beginning art and design students. Most students learn better experientially through visual and physical teaching, she says. They pay attention and get involved, and they remember it much longer if they actually experience it.

For example, in her illustration class at the Brown Institute in Minneapolis, Froemming uses the basics of improvisation to help her students explore unusual subject matter that challenges their skills and talents. She begins with a classroom brainstorm to generate three lists of unrelated words, then asks each student to pick one word from each list as the subjects of a single illustration.

I love putting things together that don t seem like they belong together and creating new combinations, twists and marvelous metaphors, Froemming explains. Instead of a dog wearing a leash by a doghouse, the three random elements may be a dog, a spaceship and a lighthouse, which generates the image of a dog, wearing a light beacon, flying through space. These elements would never have been combined otherwise, and they allow us to continually invent new stories. The story may mean something different to each person, but we are invited to share in that discovery.

In improvisation the scene may seem to be going nowhere, she continues, but we have to be willing to reclaim it and reinvent it that s the beauty of stage and art. It s a wonderful exploration of being in the moment, taking the risk and flowing with that process.

Consider Everything
But risk-taking can be scary at first, even for creatives. In Rollo May s book The Courage to Create, he demonstrates that the closer creatives get to a deadline, the more willing they are to consider everything, Gilroy says. Certainly, budgets and timelines are realities. But improv training promotes a willingness to defer judgement to stay open to an idea long enough for it to lead to a great solution.

Sometimes, creativity doesn t kick in immediately, Sweeney explains. Sometimes it takes a while to move into the white light, the real creative stuff. Sometimes it takes 22 minutes for it to click and get beyond the obvious. Another game we play is Clams Are Great. As a facilitator, I throw out the idea that clams are great. The group goes around and says what they could be great for. Minute one: Clams are great for eating. Clams are great for jewelry. Minute 22: Clams are great as drinking cups for elves. Clams are great as hummingbird pools.

Part of what astounds Sweeney about the corporate world is that the powerful people in business are often the ones who find fault with others ideas. In corporate America it s an increase in status if you put down other people s ideas, Sweeney says. Shouldn t it be the other way around? Shouldn t it be the powerful people, the supervisors, who hear all the ideas and figure out a way to make them work? Coming up with ideas is risky. It exposes your insides so that others can judge you. We should at least be appreciative when people are willing to do this, rather than squashing them. Adds Lilledahl: You don t have to say, Thank you. I absolutely agree with your idea. You can just say, Thank you for your idea.

Yes, Yes, Yes
So how do these master improvisers prompt other people to tap into the ideas of the universe? Lilledahl says there are literally thousands of improvisational games and exercises. Yes, And is one that BNI often uses.

Yes means thank you, I heard you, you re courageous, I respect you. And is an action that gets you to the next place in the scene. It involves you in part of the creative process and moves the action forward. Without and, the idea is wasted and the scene comes to an end, Lilledahl explains.

The same is true in the workplace, adds Caleb McEwen, an actor and a trainer with the Brave New Institute. We are conditioned to say no automatically. Our parents set the example from the time we re little kids no, no, no, no, no. We have to untrain ourselves to do that.
Through exercises such as Yes, And, McEwen teaches students and corporate-workshop attendees that creative safety can be found in the workplace if team members are willing to support one another. We re not conditioned as human beings to do this. We re conditioned to say no, to retract, to pull away and to not support those around us. We re conditioned not to extend ourselves in any way and not to take the risk of moving forward and doing something that might call attention to ourselves or in some way humiliate us, McEwen says.

When people don t listen, but merely wait for their turn to speak, they re already discounting the opinions and ideas of their coworkers. If you do that, you eliminate a whole lot of creative possibilities, McEwen says. If you re just hearing what people are saying around you, then you re not trying to really put yourself in their shoes and understand the place that they re coming from, and you have a tendency to not progress. In the business world, when you come in with preconceived notions and you start to doubt your partner s ability to contribute, bad things happen. People get angry. They feel insecure. They feel left out. And they have a tendency to lash out.

Improv combats that feeling of insecurity by putting everyone on the same level and making them feel that they are part of a unique event. So maybe the key to establishing the safe environment we need for creativity is mutual respect. We say no more often than we should, and we deny the ideas of others more often than we should, McEwen says. What we ve discovered is that if we say yes to the people around us, if we listen to them very, very closely and we allow ourselves to play, things have a tendency to work themselves out.

Try this at Home
Everybody Go
This is a beginning game to build trust before a brainstorm (or improv) session, and loosen the verbal and physical forms of expression:
Sit in a circle or stand in a line.

One person says something, anything, like, Everybody go Blah, blah, blah, and makes a quacking motion with her hand.

The group says, Yes! while clenching their fists and drawing their elbows back.

Then, the group repeats, Blah, blah, blah, and makes a quacking motion with their hands.

The next person in the circle says, Everybody go Whee! and throws his arms in the air.

The group says, Yes! while clenching their fists and drawing their elbows back.

Then, the group repeats, Whee! and throws their arms in the air.
The game goes around the circle like this until everyone has had a chance to express himself or herself.

What s In the Box
This exercise emphasizes gracious acceptance of all ideas and encourages participants to explore the best use for an idea:

A person presents another person with an imaginary box.

The presenter tells the recipient what it contains. The object doesn t have to physically fit in the box or exist in our known reality, such as a polka-dotted cow.

The recipient says, Thank you, and tells the presenter how the object might be used. For example, Thank you. I can use this polka-dotted cow to make polka-dotted leather jackets.

This continues until everyone has both given and received a box.

Follow No Leader
This activity reinforces the importance of listening and building consensus:

Two groups of four people form two parallel lines.

The members of each group put their arms around one another, representing one person with one brain.

Now, these two people must carry on a conversation albeit brief and usually with the help of a moderator by saying exactly the same things in exactly the same way at exactly the same time.

There are no leaders, so the process of agreeing on a string of syllables that then become words and then become phrases is slow.

For example, the moderator may begin by asking one person what his name is, and then asking the other person for his name. The moderator may then say, I wanted you to meet for a long time because you share similar hobbies. Person One why don t you tell Person Two your hobby. And so on.

Two-Person Story
This demonstrates listening skills and acknowledges the unique discoveries we can make by believing in and adding to one another s ideas:

Two people sit next to each other.

The audience suggests what type of relationship they share siblings, spouses, grandpa and grandson, etc.

The audience then suggests an unusual family event, such as the time grandma s teeth fell out.

The two people then have to tell the story of the time grandma s teeth fell out by taking turns and adding on to each other s tale until, eventually, a conclusion is drawn.

Brave New Workshop, www.bravenewworkshop.com

About this article
Reprinted with permission from HOW Magazine (c) 2001. Not for reprint without express written permission of the publisher, or parent company F&W Publications, Inc.

About the author
Heather West owns and manages Heather West Public Relations specializing in organizations that combine aesthetics and performance for the benefit of their customers, their employees and their community. For 10 years, Heather West has managed and implemented public relations programs for graphic design clients. Additionally, she has written articles for many of the industry s top publications and she also serves as editor for the American Institute of Graphic Arts, Minnesota chapter.

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