Improv theater seems like it has a lot to offer, not only for entertainment, but for learning and facilitation.
I’ve been noticing how improv theater influences US comedy. There’s the quirky and endearing show Broad City, whose creators developed their skills at the NYC improv group, Upright Citizens Brigade. That group in turn was founded by Amy Poehler, who together with Tina Fey, started their comedic careers improvising with Second City. Many of their Saturday Night Live peers also came from the same troupe or another one called The Groundlings.
In an era of airbrushing and fake reality TV, it’s refreshing to see improv because it’s raw and unscripted.
My friend Alper recently pointed out how much the tech scene can learn from improv. I didn’t quite know what he meant until I participated in his brilliant workshop, Playful Devices Improv at Things Con Amsterdam led together with Ianus.
In their session, we surfaced some of the tensions and opportunities of connected devices. We used improv techniques to jolt our brains into new ways of thinking and to focus on user stories, rather than tech specs and high concepts, to explore what the internet of things could be.
Playful Devices agenda
1. Dissociative warm-up. To get us started, we stood up and walked around the room. We were asked to point to objects and call them something completely unrelated. For example, if you saw a chair you’d shout, “Jelly fish!” and continue on to the next object. The facilitators had lots of very old kitchen appliances laying around, which added to the mix.
At first, it was hard to not just say the name of the thing or something very closely related. You had to work at opening up your thoughts and unfiltering whatever random idea first comes to mind. It was a funny exercise to get us moving and ready for more improvising.
2. Gift giving. Next we picked up the old appliances and gave them to someone else with a bit of context. An old blender may become a bouquet of flowers and you hand it to someone by saying, “Happy birthday. You don’t look a day over 80.” Or a toaster becomes a set of car keys and you say, “Thanks for letting me borrow the car. It’s only supposed to have three wheels, right?”
It was hilarious. You quickly picked up on how to respond to gift givers, going with the flow and building on top of the strange object you just received. The activity also helped us mingle more with other participants.
3. Playful character development. From here, we sat in small groups around a few of the old appliances. We were asked to improvise a character based on an object. We’d shout out attributes and backstories to describe the character, adding decorative details like stickers and post-it notes to the objects. After a while, each group briefly introduced their character to the rest of us.
4. Connected characters. As the final step, each group was asked to develop a story among the characters. Alper told us to end the stories on a happy note. After we hashed out the basic plot line, we then performed our stories using the objects.
There were loads of genuinely humorous moments and clever ideas. It was hard to believe that in just under an hour, we’d developed such funny plot lines and lively characters. And you could see that many people who might be more reserved were lighting up and joining in.
Culminating the session in a bit of performance and theater made it enjoyable to listen to the other groups and made you feel accomplished when you shared your story.
5. Learning from playful devices. The session wrapped up well with some insights about the stories we told. There were several reoccurring themes:
- Friction. By having us tell stories of two or more characters, there was an element of friction introduced. Characters wanted certain goals. And our stories revolved around how they were thwarted or achieved those goals through interaction with other characters.
- Connected. The crux of a lot of stories was a desire to connect (after all, Alper had prompted us to think of a happy end). The waffle maker wanted to reunite with his family of blenders. The cocktail shaker wanted to marry the coffee pot. It made us think about how objects could merge and interplay, whether for absurd purposes or for actual product ideas later.
- Compatibility. Nevertheless, the objects were such a medley of parts and brands. They always faced obstacles to connecting. Sometimes their features didn’t interoperate or plug into each other properly. You could see how objects need commonalities or standards to enable them to connect.
- Obsolete. Especially since we used old appliances, many stories were about being obsolete or broken or out of date. It reminded us that all technology ages as do design aesthetics.
- Single Purpose. Lastly, most of our objects could do just one thing. That why a lot of our characters started off depressed and rejected. And their motivation to connect with other objects was often about overcoming their single designed purpose. The popcorn maker wanted to hook up with the juicer so they could make fruity corn puffs.
The characters and stories we improvised were silly and fleeting. But what was remarkable about the session is how the insights were enduring.
The techniques are also great to return to. Whenever your mind is feeling stale, you can try out the dissociative warm-up. Just look at the objects around you right now. Say the first, random words that come to mind. In seconds, the world becomes sharper in definition and a bit more colorful.
The improv facilitator
In addition to the playful devices session, Alper also introduced me to the book, Impro. It’s a collection of techniques and reflections by a theater teacher in the 1980s.
There are a lot of gems, and I haven’t even finished it yet, but in a later post, I’d love to explore the author’s insights on status transactions and how we could use those techniques as facilitators and for learning.