There are a lot of words that get thrown around in the advertising industry, and few of them are used in a wider variety of ways than the word "creative." Perhaps partly because we’ve been designated as “creatives” by our more practical-minded associates, we're expected to be creative, have creative ideas, and create meaningful messages. We're always trying to hone our creative edge, but sometimes it's hard to determine the best whetstone.
In the midst of the whirlwind that was Neo-Pangea’s 2013 year, our entire staff began to share in improvisational games every Monday, right after our full team meeting. With our meetings taking place in our in-house studio space, it almost seemed wasteful not to have a little fun first thing in the week. As my title at Neo-Pangea is the Jack of All Portrayed, I especially enjoyed our habitual banter, wordplay, and scene building, but what we started as seemingly pointless, energetic fun has since revealed itself to be a true asset to our process.
Although spontaneous theatrical experimentation isn’t necessarily a staple of most advertising agencies, I’ve found that improvisation can be one of the best tools for fostering creativity and trust. In fact, I would say that improv has had a lot to do with who I am and what I do for a living, although I might not have said that a couple of months ago. Frankly, the connection probably never would have occurred to me, but it all came together while I was listening to The Nerdist Podcast, a nerd-driven, pop culture/comedy program that I frequently enjoy, and I heard host Chris Hardwick interviewing Dick Costolo, the CEO of Twitter.
If you're asking yourself what this has to do with improvisation, then you’re likely unaware that, after completing his degree in computer science, Costolo went on to be a member of a sketch comedy group for a few years. In fact, he too credits improv with his success as a professional. It really isn't a difficult stretch, when you think about it… Improvisation is about starting with nothing, and then thriving in the situation by taking mere concepts and quickly refining them. Isn't that exactly what the professional creative has to do? We create concepts and visuals from suggestions and influences. We're improvising.
For those of you who don't know me, I come from a theater background, and most of my higher education options included theater. I've always excelled at improvisation; it's something that I really enjoy, and I’ve come to the realization that I've incorporated it into my daily life.
There are those who believe that the best improvisation is born from a foundation built on three pillars of acceptance: “Yes, and…,” freeing yourself, and abstaining from judgment. These core tenets are simple to understand, even though they can be difficult for some people to embrace at first.
Improv is basically about accepting what you are given to start with, and then elaborating on that acceptance. This begins with agreeing with your partners and building on what they’ve offered: the "Yes, and..." Sure, in improv comedy, this might manifest itself in being greeted as a silly character to establish your part in a bit, or by being set up with an elaborate question: "Oh, so I heard that your father is in the hospital battling lycanthropy. How’s that going?" Although this example may be absurd, the premise easily translates into the professional life of the creative. The only way to really refine concepts begins with not dismissing them; when I was in school, we referred to this as "accepting all offers." Certainly, you don’t have to end up choosing an idea you build in this way, but it will almost certainly lead to more creative ideas in a brainstorm or a concept building meeting.
The second pillar is freeing yourself. If you self-censor, you're shooting down your ideas before you even get started with them. This might be better described as “closing the valve from whence all the ideas flow.” Instincts are tools that we can learn to use, and you get better with them the more you experiment with them. In a scene, this means finding what your character wants to say and letting them say it without worrying if it's what YOU want. Improv is plagued by people who simply try to work in silly words like "monkey" because it's where their brain goes when they think of "funny." If you free yourself to just listen and react, you'll come up with much more organic and interesting things to say and do; this is also very true of the professional world. Instead of thinking about what you want to say when you're concept building with a team, listen and react. Chances are good that there's a reason you're surrounded by the kinds of people you call team members. They work with you for a reason. Listen to their ideas and react with feedback. "Yes and..." their ideas and see what you can build together. That's all improv is: building a thing together by working as a team.
The third and final pillar is abstaining from judgment. Don't let "That’s dumb!" or "We can't!" be the first things that pop into your head when you hear an idea. If we revisited the first scenario with my poor, poor father's werewolf disease and I’d quashed that premise with, "You heard wrong, he's not even sick,” it would have derailed the creative energy flow that the other person tried to get going with me. This does no one any favors. Judging people and their ideas is always bad, improv or not. It fosters negativity that can impact relationships, productivity, and teamwork. It's okay if an idea isn't the best, but there’s no reason you can’t at least kick it around for a short bit.
Lately, improv has started to become an official piece of Neo-Pangea process, and we can see its positive influence every day. We've been doing it all along, to be honest, but we never realized it. Perhaps now that we see it for what it is, we can work the improv muscle a little harder and benefit even more from the wonderful things that it has to offer.