During its long Off-Broadway run, I saw The 39 Steps - in which 4 actors play multiple roles within the same scene and sometimes in the same sentence - three times. My fascination with improvisation is part of the reason, and the actors' ability to balance slapstick comedy with communication of important details about a complex spy story based on an early Alfred Hitchcock film is another. The cast displayed a seemingly infinite capacity to switch gears - and hats and identities, including accents - with split-second timing, and to use the same objects in a thousand different ways. Using a few set pieces -e.g. chairs, boxes, flashlights - and the actors' physical commitment to the scene, we experience a chase atop a moving train, a car, a Scottish farmhouse on the windy moors, and the London Palladium among many others. These actors' ability to move in and out of various identities is a "quick-change" skill developed and expanded through training in improvisation and theater games. And as actors on the stage of 21st century life, in which uncertainty is the "new normal," that kind of creative, rapid-response competence is effectively and efficiently developed through applied improvisation.
This hilarious and inventive show demonstrates what can be accomplished by renaming, recombining, and reinventing existing resources. This is key to the way we design a future in which it is vital that we develop the ability to think on our feet, navigate a high degree of uncertainty, forge relationships with people from diverse backgrounds, and innovate our way out of complex problems. Technology has dissolved the old boundaries of time and space, and there is no box to think out of anymore. Improvisation accomplishes this and more with a generous dose of humanity, humor, and warmth.
The May/June 2010 issue of the Ivey Business Journal promotes music and theater improvisation as a way to “learn a great deal about flexibility and agility in the face of ambiguity and time pressure. Consider jazz musicians, who jam, or work collaboratively to co-create music in real time. Or consider the theatre improviser who doesn’t have a script but creates the storyline with the other improvisers. The improvisers have learned to deal with diversity, ambiguity, interconnectedness and flux.”
As free-lancers and independent contractors progressively make up more and more of the workforce – recently estimated at 35% with business leaders predicting this trend will continue–and seismic economic and social shifts redefine the rules and the structures through which we create our professional lives improvisers have a significant advantage. As we live through this great reshaping of the way things work, the mind and skill set gained through improvisation-based training is ideally matched to intensifying demands for innovative and inventive thinking on the fly, the ability to break down barriers to people across a wide range of social and cultural gaps, reach for resources and search for hidden connections linking “what is” to “what is emerging,” to new directions and inventive solutions that are the mark of innovation.
Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, RMT, CGP is a trainer/consultant and writer/performer. Her storytelling show Crazytown: my first psychopath will be performed at The Triad in New York City on May 18, 2014 at 3 pm. To buy tickets click here