Words by Marlena Ahearn
Photos by Rachel Liz Photography
Working well with a team and having strong communication skills can be crucial elements to finding success in any field of work. If these aren’t your strong suits, improvisation can be a helpful tool to get you in the right headspace to get ahead in work—and in life.
“Comedy improvisation is an excellent tool for team building largely because it is a great equalizer. No matter what you and your improv teammates are doing—whether it’s working together to become an airplane, posing for a portrait as a family of cats, or singing a made-up song about that weird high school reunion you went to—everyone feels silly together,” says Megan Mack.
Born and raised in Rochester, Megan has always had an interest in comedy. She grew up watching Gilda Radner and when she read that Radner had studied at The Second City, she made it a goal to take classes there as well. While studying Television, Radio, and Film (and Italian!) at Syracuse University, she took a summer internship in New York City at Late Night with Conan O'Brien.
“When I told them that I wanted to write for television, specifically comedy, they told me Second City would be a great thing to consider. That was all the advice I needed. I turned down a job offer in New York City after I graduated and started commuting from Rochester to Toronto for classes at The Second City Training Center,” says Megan.
Megan started at the training center hoping to complete the writing program, but Second City requires taking improv before writing. Even though improv initially terrified her, she loved the class so much that she ended up completing the improv program and auditioned for the Conservatory program. She then spent a year training with for a show she and her team wrote and performed on the Second City mainstage.
Today, Megan is a radio and television producer (her main gig being the producer of "Connections with Evan Dawson" at WXXI) in addition to teaching improvisation and sketch comedy in Rochester.The idea behind practicing improv to learn how to work together is to become a skilled listener, a creative thinker, and a better teammate. The skills that players use in an improv scene are the same ones you use in the real world. You learn how to foster agreement by saying “yes, and,” to be an active listener, and how to trust and support your team.
To help you get started, here are three exercises Megan recommends that emphasize team building.
Players line up facing the audience. Player A steps on stage and makes a sound and motion (i.e.: ringing a bell). She repeats this sound and motion through the end of the game. Player B enters and adds his sound and motion next to Player A. They create a rhythm together. This continues until all of the players are on stage and the “machine” has been built. One by one, the players exit the stage, and the machine breaks down. The goal is to emphasize how the machine cannot work well unless the entire team participates.
One player is selected to be a bus driver. He plays a character and gets ready to begin his route. One by one, the other players enter. Each has a strong character trait. When Player A enters, the bus driver adopts her character trait (i.e.: a child who asks lots of questions). When Player B enters, Player A and the bus driver adopt her character trait (i.e.: a painter who finds her muse in each of the other players or objects on the bus). This continues until all players enter the bus. Then, one by one, the players leave and the exercise goes in reverse. Eventually, only the bus driver remains. The goal is to promote agreement among the players and emphasize that every choice is a good choice that can be heightened by the team.
Players stand in a line facing the audience. The audience or instructor suggests a title of a story. The players must work together to tell the story, beginning with “once upon a time.” The instructor points to a player who tells part of the story until the instructor points to a different player. This continues with teammates building on each other’s ideas until they find the story’s ending. This exercise can also be done with performers telling the story one word at a time (rather than being conducted by the instructor). The goal for the players is to actively listen to each other’s ideas and build upon the last thing said. It’s more difficult than it seems! This game is most successful when performers get out of their own heads and fully embrace the ideas of their teammates.