A few months back, on a whim, I decided to enroll at the well known Improv school, the Groundlings, in Hollywood. Luckily, the time between enrollment and the first day of class was only two days because if it had been longer I would have withdrawn out of sheer fear of putting myself so incredibly out of my comfort zone. Instead, I showed up at 10A on the first day and immediately found myself sitting in a circle on the floor, crossed legged, and holding hands with strangers. If it wasn’t enough that I was the only non-actor in the room, I was also the only one in the room that was old enough to vote for the first President Bush-make that I was the only one who had been born before the election of the first President Bush.
Over the course of the next month, I engaged in many activities that I couldn’t have imagined even a few weeks earlier. I sat knee to knee with fellow “actors,” Improv-ing scenes based on prompts from our student audience; I sang made up songs at the top of my lungs despite being tone deaf; and I sewed clothes on an imaginary sewing machine. Yes, I was firmly out of my comfort zone. Or so I thought.
That is until the last day of class. On that day, we had to pair up and improv a final scene. I watched as team after team took the stage. It was obvious they had all gotten much better over the course of the semester. Watching them, I started thinking, “hey, I’ve gotten pretty good at this also. I’ve done a damn fine job of getting out of the box, doing something I never thought I would or could, doing it with and in front of a bunch of twenty something actors, and actually flipping a switch from having a corporate problem solving mindset to a totally creative one.”
Finally, it was my turn. My new buddy, Noble, a twenty year old guy who had just moved to Los Angeles from Maine, volunteered to be my partner. We both strode to our makeshift stage and stood facing our fellow students. Our instructor, Julie, looked to them and said “what should they do?” A chorus of wild suggestions filled the room with Julie finally hearing the perfect scenario. “They are spies.”
My mind immediately started clicking. I had about 15 seconds to figure out how the hell to be a spy. I knew if Noble said anything first, I had to follow him-the Improv rule of “yes, and” would come into play. And then it happened………Noble spoke first. Crap. “Isabella, take these guns and run to the hallway” Noble said, hoisting a giant imaginary gun that I could only assume was the size of a bazooka.” “Those are too big,” I said. “We must develop a plan to get into the Capitol, Boris.” Apparently, I was still fighting the Cold War with that name choice.
The scene went on with me now firmly in the lead, discussing plans of the best way to penetrate the White House. I think at one point we might have even zeroed in on Hilary Clinton through the window of the Oval office.
The scene ended and the two of us turned and faced Julie for our post scene critique. I must say, I was feeling pretty cocky. I expected to hear how much I had grown from that first day and how totally immersed in my character I was.
Ha! Julie, always the encourager, did start the critique by saying.”That was good.” Unfortunately, it was immediately followed by a “but….” which she followed up with, “I want you to do it again, and this time I want you to “play like a child.”
Huh??? Isn’t that what I was just doing, I thought, panicked, to myself. I had no idea what to do. We took a breath and I did the only thing I could do, I 100% followed Noble’s lead. This time when he handed me a giant gun, I took it. And for the next 5 minutes, we lobbed grenades, fired semi-automatic weapons, and made loud, disturbing noises mimicking a battle scene.
When the scene ended, Julie asked, “See, didn’t that feel different?” Shockingly, it did. My mind had stopped working like it normally did. There was no more analysis, no more strategy, no more developing plans. Just sheer, unadulterated mayhem.
Finally, the light bulb clicked. I had spent all this time physically out of my comfort zone but I had kept my brain working firmly in my comfort zone. Every scene I did until that last one was somehow familiar to my normal thought patterns even if the situation was decidedly unfamiliar. To create something beyond my wildest dreams, I had to let go of everything.
I learned a lot that day about how leaders can influence new ideas. They have to:
-Let somebody else speak first and then follow that idea where ever it may take you
-Don’t get out of your comfort zone. Get out of your own damn head
-Don’t censor. Embrace foolish
Yes, eventually the nuts and bolts kick in. But for a little while every day, follow Noble’s lead and play like a child.