Improv: Flying While Winging It

I had my share of childhood classes: ballet, jazz, vocal lessons, tap dancing, gymnastics and theater camp. I tried out for the high-school play, but ended up spending most of my time behind the curtain making sets, designing props, and directing lighting as a stage manager. Forgetting all about the stage in college, I went on to grow-up into a creative adult and eventually became an art director.

Then in 2015 I had the most fun I've ever had with my pants on at Comedy Sportz in Milwaukee. After moving to Chicago, I continued taking classes at the iO Theater and can't wait to move into Level 3 this March. I love improv because it has so much to offer to the creative process. As an art director and a Type-A person, I am used to being prepared. But in improv it is impossible to be prepared. There are no rules and the only way to survive is to be in the moment and trust your stage partners have your back.

Here are three lessons from improv that have made me a better art director:

Don't Think

There's no curtain in improv. You're already on stage and the lights are on. The audience gives you a suggestion. No time to think, just say the first thing that comes into your head.

I've found this tactic most helpful in a brainstorming session when we have 8 concepts and are reaching for those last few nuggets of gold in the backs of our brains. Sometimes just saying the dumbest thing out loud can move it out of the way and gives my brain room for a great idea. Often I've found the silliest thing I blurted out in a brainstorm session inspires the truest insight.

Active Listening

On stage, you have to listen (and watch) your partner to keep the reality alive. If they establish it is night time in our scene, I'll break out my pretend flashlight and jump at every little sound.

I find myself using this skill often when presenting. The group will often give visual cues while I present and by actively paying attention, I can adjust the presentation to suit the audience. By assessing comprehension, I can slow down my presentation at critical moments, or choose breeze through that boring section on the migration habits of African and European swallows.

Mistakes are Gifts

There are no mistakes, because even mistakes can become part of the scene and often enhance it. If it's established we are on a boat and I forget and walk off the edge, I haven't made a mistake, I've just uncovered my superpower!

This is just great advice for life in general. At it's core, it's optimistic; Every cloud has a silver lining and every challenge is an opportunity. Keeping this attitude while working with challenging clients opens up windows when they close doors. When budgets get cut and ads get smaller, keeping a positive attitude can help you realize it works better as an out of home than it ever did as a :30 spot, anyway.

Improv helps me improve the way I connect to creative partners, clients, and ideas. It is good to practice thinking on my feet and being on stage gets me comfortable with being uncomfortable. I still love to make meticulous to-do lists, but when the client throws the plans out the window, I'm ready to wing it and still soar.

A Student Again and Always

After living in Milwaukee for 5 years, I realized how much I missed city life. Little things like public transportation on rails and being able to get a donut after 8pm. I even missed the smell of the city. A mix of hot concrete, lake pollution, and the stress of 2 million busy people. 

So I signed up for the Chicago Portfolio School, something I never thought I'd do again. With five years of school, a BFA, and three years of agency experience, I began our first quarter in April. Every project was sharpies and paper only, meaning no hiding behind my glitzy Photoshop and Illustrator techniques.

Just pure, raw ideas.

Every week I'd pin up my 20 black-and-white sharpie comps along with the 10 other students in class. I learned very quickly to let go of my ego. Some weeks produced winners, some didn't. But it didn't matter because it was about quantity, dropping my bad habits, and hunting down that great concept.

Just a few of the winners from Q1

In agency life, we rarely get the time to play around with so many concepts. But as a student again, I had to keep reminding myself that there is no client to please, no budget to stay under, and no account managers asking to push the date up from Friday to Wednesday. As a student, my only limit is myself. And least surprisingly, there is always so much to learn. From the teachers, from my classmates, and from this beautiful, smelly city.