For some of us, the idea of acting on stage or performing a monologue to a theatre full of people is terrifying. But that doesn’t mean we should personally shelve theatre completely. Many of the skills you develop through theatre and acting can be invaluable to your professional life. The pillars of improv — positivity, collaboration, creativity and engagement — are fundamental, and engaging in some improv exercises may improve your work and personal environments, as well as bring a few laughs into the room.
What is an improv exercise?
Improv exercises or “Theater Games” are a common way to break the ice, get out of your current headspace, learn divergent thinking and have fun. Viola Spolin is known as the creator of Theater Games — later developed into “Improv games/exercises” — which started with her work with immigrant children in the 1920s.
According to The Second City (the most famous improv theatre organization, originally co-founded by Spolin’s son), Spolin came up with theatrical games to help immigrant children better assimilate into their new surroundings. The goal was to have fun and funny exercises that could “cross-cultural and ethnic barriers” and give children experience at behaving “collaboratively and empathetically.” She eventually published a book entitled Improvisation for the Theater, which went over many improv exercises and was met with much critical acclaim. Today, improv exercises are used by schools, theatre and the professional world alike to foster innovation, collaboration and authenticity. They range from exercises where you pretend to be a different animal every minute to partner exercises involving mirroring, responding and building off one another.
Why should you use improv exercises at work?
Have you been told recently that instead of saying “But…” or “No…because…” when a coworker shares a thought you should say “Yes! And…”? This was originally an improv exercise and remains one of the pillars of improv theory. Improv exercises get team members energized and excited, as well as help people improve skills like communication, creativity, and collaborative thinking. But improv exercises go deeper. Games like “Yes. And…” and “Thank you, because…” inspire incremental mind shifts towards empathy and emotional intelligence. Many improv groups work with professionals to help inspire change in teams and individuals in the workplace, and the University of Chicago’s School of Business is even conducting long terms studies on behavior science through the lens of improv.
Eight improv exercises for the workplace.
1. “Yes! And…”
Can be played with 2+ people. One person starts and says a statement, the next says “Yes! And…” thereafter adding something onto the story, situation or personality that the first person began. This continues as the story gets sillier and sillier. Feel free to act out various statements as you add them on.
2. Alien, Cow and Tiger
The more people the better. Everyone gathers in a circle. There are three actions: one each for Alien, Cow and Tiger. At the count of three, everyone chooses one of the actions to perform and looks at what others chose. You then stop, count again and choose again, repeating this until the group is in synchrony all choosing the same action.
The more people the better. Everyone crouches down and pretends to be a popcorn kernel and shakes as they heat up. Each person chooses when they “pop,” jumping up to ideally make the room sound like popcorn popping.
4. Problem and Solution
Two people. The first person says, “I have a problem” and describes their problem to their partner (the more ridiculous the better). The second person says “Here! I have a…” and offers something completely random. The first person should then reply “Great! I can use this (random object) to (explains how this object could in some silly way help solve the problem).” This can go back and forth but once the problem is solved the first person high-fives the second person and thanks them for helping solve the problem.
Eight or more people. The group stands in the circle, and the starting person says the name of another person in the circle. The person whose name was called then responds “Yes!” and the first person starts walking toward them slowly. The second person then calls the name of another person in the circle (who responds “Yes!”) and begins to walk toward the third person. This continues until everyone is walking, someone doesn’t shout a name quickly enough or general chaos ensues.
6. Word at a Time
Two or more people. Everyone gets in a circle, and someone starts by saying a word. The next person adds a word on and so on, and eventually a story begins to form. You can either have the group communally tell a story that everyone knows (such as the three little pigs), or you can have the group make up their own story.
7. Order by
Five or more people. One person leads and tells the group to line themselves up according to (blank). It can be age, birthday, shoe size, height, number of cities you’ve lived in, hair length, high school GPA and so on. You can make the ordering criteria sillier as you go (order by the number of children, by favorite color or by how many noses you have). This game can be made harder by not allowing the participants to speak.
8. Pass the Clap
Three or more people. Everyone stands in a circle. One person starts by looking at the person to their left in the eyes and then both clap at exactly the same time. That person then turns to the person on their left and those two people clap at the same time. The clap is then “passed” around the circle.
Should you use improv exercises at work?
Yes! And you should do it when…
- the office environment feels “stale” or “stagnant”
- memos/messages/requests are being ignored
- worker morale is low
- office communication isn’t going well
- workers aren’t fully engaged
- the team needs a laugh
- there are new team members/people are getting to know one another
- there are presentations coming up
- the office is going through a difficult situation
- people could improve their adaptability/collaboration/communication skills
- you feel like it
- the team is ready to improve itself
- you want to innovate
- the office’s storytelling skills could improve
- people are facing challenges at work
- the team needs to learn how to take feedback
- co-workers are fighting
- it’s time to inspire one another