Winging it at work: How this theatre company uses improv techniques in a corporate setting

Improv Embassy recent workshop
Improv Embassy Theatre Co. uses classic theatrical improvisation techniques to teach key skills that can be used in the workplace (Supplied)

As workers return to the office after years of virtual meetings, an Ottawa-based improv company is helping employers and employees break the ice with techniques you’d typically find on a theatre stage. 

Improv Embassy Theatre Co. has run more than two dozen corporate workshops since it started in 2016, with clients ranging from PwC Canada and Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp., to Adobe Inc. and the Queensway Carleton Hospital.

“Our goal is to provide a way for companies to strengthen their teams in an almost joyful way, to encourage creativity and collaboration,” said the board chair at Improv Embassy, Wynn Quon. “These are things that happen naturally in an improv setting.”

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Quon, who has a background in tech management, said learning improv techniques helps break down barriers between colleagues and encourage a sense of safety that has long-term benefits for both workers and the company.

“Since leaving the tech world, I’ve been really impressed with the things that I’ve seen can happen when you embrace improv in the workplace,” he said. 

Improv Embassy didn’t initially offer corporate training courses when the company was founded. Instead, companies came to them. 

“When we started, the corporate aspect wasn’t something that we even considered,” said corporate training lead Krystal Merrells. 

“It was simply people coming to us who were like, ‘Hey, I read (American actor) Alan Alda’s book where he talks about applied improv.’ So people would read the book or go to a retreat somewhere and ask us if we could do that here. It started off kind of slow, just people coming to us, and we soon realized that it was a whole lot of fun.”

Applied improv takes improvisational theatrical techniques and uses them in other fields as a way of improving interpersonal and leadership skills, such as collaboration, communication and creativity. 

Improv Embassy offers courses and workshops, as well as retreats catered to corporate companies. The workshops are run by facilitators with years of training and performance experience. It’s an approach that requires few resources, according to Merrells, other than an open space, some chairs and a knowledgeable facilitator. 

She added that the techniques workers and employees learn from improv are widely applicable and she herself uses them often in her day job in health care. 

“(Improv) teaches great skills that are very transferable to different fields, not just health care,” she said. “The difference is that it is so exceptionally fun. People are so surprised at how we are teaching these very important skills and having very difficult conversations but, at the same time, people are crying because they’re laughing so hard.”

So, what are the improv techniques that can be applied in the workplace?

Perhaps the best known technique, “Yes, and . . .” encourages improvisers to build on thoughts and ideas shared by their colleagues. 

“It’s really the concept of accepting what is presented to you and then building off of that. When we do that, we can move forward with conversations, projects and meetings,” said Merrells. 

“It isn’t about saying yes to everything; we don’t want to do that. So often in our workplaces, someone has an idea or a solution and we get bogged down in, ‘Yeah, but . . .’ and, ‘No, but . . .’ So the exercise is about accepting and building and seeing where it takes us. It’s really the pinnacle of collaboration.”

Improv also thrives on active listening, which can improve collaboration and camaraderie. 

“When we perform, we can’t move forward a narrative or put together a good show if we’re only focused on our individual performance,” said Merrells. “We focus on learning how to open up and pay attention to the other ideas that are presented on stage.”

By actively engaging with teammates, participants learn how to react to the ideas around them, then use the feedback to inform their next move.

Learning to do this can help people move forward, especially when things go off-script.

“Improv is honing our instincts and our reactions,” said Merrells. “We do improv every single day. Pretty much none of your day is scripted. We all work with what we’ve got on the fly. The exercises we do train us to practice acting and reacting in a way that best aligns with our intentions. We’re never going to nail it 100 per cent of the time but, through practice, we can learn to react in a way that is most authentic to ourselves.”

Quon has found that improv can also help improve the attitude toward failure, in part because it requires teammates to lift each other up. 

“If you mess it (up), it’s actually an opportunity for the other performers to accept that failure,” he said. “Those can actually be some of the most entertaining moments. When you fail, the improviser accepts that as the new base reality and that is so freeing. We’re saying it doesn’t matter what you do, we’re going to make this work.”

That attitude can create a sense of what Quon calls “psychological safety,” which can be essential to building team trust and encouraging innovation and risk-taking in the workplace. 

“You don’t have to always be looking over your shoulder for someone judging you,” he said. “It’s a judgment-free zone.” 

Another example of improv is a game called word-at-a-time proverb. In a circle, participants take turns adding one word at a time in sequence to create a proverb, drawing on their listening skills to decide what word to add, even if it’s “and” or “the.” According to Quon, the small words are essential and so is letting go of preconceived ideas of what to add if the group needs to shift in another direction. The resulting proverbs are often hilarious and sometimes surprisingly insightful, he added.

“One way that companies are finding our workshops helpful is bringing workers back into the office,” Quon said. “Work-at-home has its pluses but the downside is that social connections can be frayed. The immediacy of working ‘live’ is lost. These are things that we help fix.”

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