Standing up on a stage, with lights shining in your eyes and nothing prepared, is many people’s worst nightmare. But now companies are using improvisational comedy workshops as a tool to train their staff, says performer and teacher Neil Curran.
"A lot of American companies embrace it as part of their training culture," says Curran, speaking on The Irish Times Off Topic podcast. "Certainly American companies are ahead of the curve to get them to apply training, apply skills, to give people tools . . . but it's becoming more and more mainstream."
Curran runs the improvisational comedy school Lower the Tone, which counts companies such as Facebook and Google among their corporate training clients. Irish business are now using the techniques learned in improv to help staff to step outside their comfort zone.
“It’s the fear factor,” says Curran. “When you’re learning improv really what you’re learning is to not care about what you think other people think of you, and to just lose that fear of being on the spot, having to do something that we’re educated to think is wrong.
“We’re told in school, college and work to prepare, prepare, prepare, and improv is the complete opposite of that. And we just have to be okay with the fact that sometimes it’ll go wrong and the more people warm to that idea, the more confident and comfortable they become.”
It feels counter-intuitive that improvisational comedy classes even exist. The nature of improv, after all, is that it shouldn’t be prepared. But many don’t realise that secretly preparing by having gags in your back pocket is ill-advised for improvisational comedy, according to actor Danny Keogh.
“When I teach it, the first thing I tell people is to not to try to be funny, which is kind of crazy because they’re learning comedy improv,” says Keogh. “In fact I tell everyone that when I’m doing any kind of comedy workshop, don’t try to be funny, because when you’re trying to be funny you’re not in the moment, you’re in your head . . . There’s people who have gags and that, but it’s better if that happens organically.”
Describing it as an “egoless” artform, Curran says that the key to improv is to work as a team. Improv teams should not be competitive with their partners, and it’s a heartening approach to creating comedy.
“We’re there to serve the team in the show as opposed to serve ourselves,” he says. “As an improviser you spot someone who’s going for the gag straight away, and more often than not, a gag will sacrifice a scene or sacrifice a show for the sake of a joke. And that’s something as an improviser I hate to perform with.”
Improv has been a part of the American comedic tradition for some time now, gaining popularity through talk shows like Saturday Night Live as well as TV shows such as Seinfeld and Parks and Recreation. But it’s only just beginning to join the Irish mainstream, and many people still don’t have a full understanding of it.
Dublin comedian Alison Spittle, who is currently performing at the Edinburgh Comedy Festival, has some experience of improv. At the Edinburgh Set List show, she had to come up with an on the spot routine – about jellyfish complaints. “I had to come up with a set, within a few seconds, and talk to the audience about it,” she said. “It was the most exhilarating thing I’ve ever done in my life.”
Despite the fear that came with this comedy, Spittle says that the trust between the performer and the audience is paramount in improv performance; as is Berocca.
“I was so scared. I was eating so many Beroccas as well. I went up and I did it and once you get your first laugh . . . I think with improv, the relationship between the audience and the performers is very important. They have to trust you. Once you get that first laugh, I feel like there’s a contract of trust there and you can go whichever way you like and they’ll trust that you’ll get to a funny bit at the end.”
Although it can be nerve-racking, those who vouch for it say that the possibilities of improv are endless when you’re standing on the stage with no script to follow. Improv may be an act of play, but the benefit it serves in business are completely serious for those who need some added confidence.
“Remember when you were a kid and you used to knock for someone to come and play? We all did it,” says Keogh. “You’re just knocking for someone except you’re thirty and you’re doing it on stage. There’s no better feeling than looking someone in the eyes on stage, loads of people there, and you’re going ‘anything can happen’ and they’re going ‘anything can happen’, let’s see what we can do, let’s see how far we can push this, let’s see what we can get away with.”