Working at Play

On Friday night I performed in Cagematch, an improv show where two teams compete for audience votes. The winner (that was us!) performs again the following Friday.

Some terrible photos of me, courtesy of my wife.

Later on at the bar, a man came up to me. He told me he’d never seen an improv show before, and naturally, he wanted to know how much we’d practiced.

Quite a bit. The three of us had met several times to create our form and get comfortable playing with one another. But that’s not what he meant. He wanted to know how much of our performance had been scripted. How much of it we’d memorized. How long we’d rehearsed that specific show.

Of course, we’d never even thought of doing that.

His question is a common one. When people find out I teach improv, they want to know what happens these classes (and why they cost so much money). After all, if every show is made up—and seeing as everyone can make stuff up—what’s left to teach?

But these same people don’t go around asking basketball players what they do at practice. They don’t believe that the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder get together to script out their passes and shots before the game—do they? No. Each team knows the game will be completely unpredictable, and therefore, it is in their best interest to hone the core skills (dibbling, passing, shooting, etc) they’ll need, regardless of what unfolds on the court. By improving their play, they prepare themselves for anything.

Improv class (and improv practice) is no different. We don’t script or rehearse the show. Rather, we practice a set of core skills—yes and, listening, trust, game of the scene—that each of us can deploy on stage, no matter what happens.

Had we scripted and memorized our show, perhaps it would have been funnier and more polished. Perhaps we would have won by an even larger margin. But then what? We’d have to prepare an entirely new show, and we’d have less than a week to do it! How stressful. Much easier (and less risky), I think, to reinforce the underlying skills that allow us to show up and perform any show reasonably, rather than perfecting a show we can only do one time.

This lesson is broadly applicable. Consider how much time you spend rehearsing for things that will only ever happen once—a big presentation, a speech, an important meeting with your boss. You invest all this time and energy only to see it evaporate once the event is over. Why not, instead, put that effort into mastering the underlying core skills—self-confidence, interpersonal communication, clear and strong argumentation—that will come in handy no matter the obstacle you’re up against? That easily transfer from one domain to another. You may still need to prepare, but everything will come together much quicker.

Anyone can shoot a free throw. Anyone can make things up. But often, it pays to work at play.


Each Monday, I share strategies to help you pursue your passions. Try it. You’ll like it.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash


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