Philosophy

Improv and Innovation

By Ryan McGreal
Published April 28, 2011

Google Talks recently posted an hourlong talk in which Google executive chair Eric Schmidt interviews comedian Tina Fey.

The interview is funny and engaging (and occasionally awkward), but an early exchange really jumped out at me. Discussing Fey's new book, Bossypants, Schmidt launched into an improv sketch:

Eric: [pointing finger at Tina] Stop! I've got a gun.

Tina: The gun? The gun I gave you for our wedding anniversary, Eric? How could you?

Eic: We're not married!

Tina: Aha! "We're not married" is a denial. We've learned our first improv lesson.

Fey went on to explain how improv works:

There are some basic rules of improvisation: when you're creating something out of nothing, the first rule is to agree, which is to say yes. ...

The next rule is: yes, and, which is to add on to what you've already agreed upon. ...

You have to be open to any possibility and you're being open to the fact that an idea that you stumble upon together is likely to be more interesting than the idea that you started with as individuals.

This strongly recalled Steven Johnson's TED talk on the origins of innovation, in which he argued that good ideas emerge from people collaborating to cobble together something new using parts that are lying around.

Johnson concluded: "Chance favours the connected mind," an approach that seems profoundly in keeping with the basic principles of improv.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan writes a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. He also maintains a personal website and has been known to post passing thoughts on Twitter @RyanMcGreal. Recently, he took the plunge and finally joined Facebook.

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By Fred Street (anonymous) | Posted April 28, 2011 at 12:06:58

And like innovation, 99.9% of improv involves sacrifice and suffering (mostly on the part of audiences).

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By misterque (registered) - website | Posted May 16, 2011 at 14:25:43 in reply to Comment 62809

lol. I can assure you that the Disapproval ratings of improv comedy shows at The Staircase are much lower than your nihilistic estimate of 99.9%.

I have been teaching improv theatre for more than 20 years. There is a lot to be gained from it in regards to creative process and getting things done. However I am mostly interested in training people having fun with it.

Those who ubiquitously hate improv theatre are often those who prefer order and structure in not just their entertainment, but in their lives and society as well. Most consumers of entertainment need to be told who the star is, who the director is, and when to laugh.  In a live improv show there is no star, no director, and no laugh track. An improv show is a shared risk between the audience and the actors. In this sense it is extremely collaborative and unpredictable. Scenes may fail miserably, but those are discarded and fresh suggestions are drawn from the audience. The audience not only gets to laugh when things work, but enjoy watching their actors recover and forge onwards. The process is part of the show. If you insist on order, commercial breaks, and laugh tracks an improv comedy show may never work for you. :)

Come by the staircase and catch a workshop or a show. Considering the average ticket of a major stage production could get you into a year's worth of workshops, there is not too much to lose.

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