How an Improv Class Leads to Unexpected Self Discovery

Know this about you. This is a phrase I commonly use with my students in an improv class. When entering the improv stage, a performer brings all their life experience along with them. There is no script, no character study, no prepared lines. The most important preparation the improviser can do is to be in touch with their own truths, beliefs, and personality. Every interaction and decision made is an opportunity to “know this about you.”

The same is true in your professional life. The choices you make, and the leadership or ensemble work you are charged with tells you and those around you who you are and what to expect of you. Your conduct predicts the likelihood of a promotion, an assignment, or whether someone will do you a solid and wash out that coffee cup you accidentally left in the break room.  Barring a long term scientific behavioral study of you and your environment, how can you truly “see” yourself in the moment of crucial decision making?

How about by throwing an imaginary ball? Sounds silly at first, but that is exactly how we as facilitators use experiential exercise in an improv class to reveal our reactions. As improvisers, we “mime” our props onstage. We do this because we never know where a scene or character may go until we are in it, and so we must discover our objects and environment as we go.

In one particular exercise, used both for performance and for business-focused improv, we agree together through the fundamental improv tenet of “yes, and” that we have a red ball. Standing in a circle, one person establishes the size and the weight of that red ball by holding it up in their hand. “This is a red ball,” the initiator declares, and the circle says, “yes.” The initiator then tosses the red ball to someone else in the circle by making eye contact with that person and saying, “red ball.” The other person “catches” the ball, honoring the original size and weight, and says, “thank you, red ball” to confirm they have caught it. This pattern continues, the imaginary but agreed-upon object passing from person to person. We eventually add new invisible objects to the circle in order to challenge focus and agreement.

Here is where you get to “know this about you.” There are always three types of people in the red ball circle.

  • Person A honors the red ball, connects with someone else, throws the ball, and resets to be ready for the next task. They did their job of passing on the ball, and what happens after that is up to the person who caught it.
  • Person B honors the red ball, connects with someone else, throws the ball, confirms that the person who caught it has it, and that the loop is closed. They did their job to pass, and they visually, possibly verbally confirmed, that the catcher has completed their task.
  • Person C honors the red ball, connects with someone else, throws the ball, confirms the ball has been caught, and then waits, fully invested in where the ball goes next. After all, they are responsible for the entire chain of action, and they need to be sure that the ball they once held is getting to where it needs to be.

In my decade as an improv instructor, I have watched peoples’ faces light up with realization time and time again as they find themselves firmly in one category, or straddling two, dependent on the situation. This simple, playground-style game that lasts only a few minutes can reveal a truth about your work, even your personal life. None of these is right or wrong, merely an example of how you best function. Do you do your job and move on, follow up, or take full responsibility for the actions of your team? This is a glimpse into the value and power of an improv class exercise applied to your everyday life, which we like to call functional improvisation. And believe me, it is way more fun for real than it is here in writing.

Improv was originally designed to facilitate play and communication between children, to tap into the purest form of self-connection and expression. Being open to better “knowing this about you” can transform the way you work and live.

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