Acting is usually associated with theatre, but a local author is exploring the role of improv within our personal and work lives in a new book.
“I think one of the things about improv is that we're deliberately accepting any answer, like more ridiculous is better, in some cases,” says Lauren Stein, an improviser extraordinaire and the author of Fun at Work: Transform Your Career with Improv, talking about the appeal of improvisation.
"It’s this total freedom from our own inner critic, and harsh voice and censorship, so that freedom allow us to say whatever we want and then be accepted as we are and get positive feedback, and when you have that experience, that's going to lead to more safety in your skin and a fearlessness to say whatever you're thinking, and that's one way to build confidence."
Fun at Work follows Stein’s work with eight employees at a Toronto tech firm as she leads them through a series of improvisation, from games to multi-level character plays, like long-form improv. The participants were asked to write journal responses to these events, which are combined within the book with the writer’s own reflections on the effect of improvisation has had on her own life.
Having a love for acting since the age of five, Stein says she didn’t know about the therapeutic benefits of improv until after university.
“When I was teaching it for a few years, I kept getting all this feedback about people being more confident, being able to speak in groups, having more social skills,” Stein recalls, “And then I found out that expressive art therapy is a field that is dedicated to the therapeutic uses of arts, and I got my Masters in that.”
Seeing an opportunity to combine her passion for improv and helping others, Stein enrolled in a masters program for art therapy. Noticing there wasn't much of a focus on improv in her Masters program, this is when she decided to study the benefits of long-form improv, becoming the basis for her book.
“They talked about theatre and they talked about clowning and they talked about story-telling...all those things that I love,” says Stein, “But improv theatre, especially the long-form, that's the part where I was like, 'We need research on this.'”
After conducting this research with the tech firm, Stein says two employees who participated in her program went on to apply and receive promotions at their work.
“Some of them started out shy and doing this deliberately to push themselves and at the end, they became more confident,” she says, “One or two people actually applied for promotions and got them, as another example.”
“I think it’s really gratifying and powerful... it was always combination of factors what role my improv played in everything, but over time I've gotten a lot of positive feedback, so I have this overall sense that improv does make a difference."
With workplaces changing due to the pandemic, Stein says this is an opportunity to change the way we think about productivity and participate in corporate culture.
“In our day to day life there are high risks all the time,” she explains about the current corporate culture, “We’re told in messages that we’re not enough, our ideas will get shot down, and people’s egos get in the way all the time.”
“There are a lot of people at a business meeting who won’t speak up because they are so afraid that they will give a ‘bad idea’ and everyone will hate on them.”
Stein mentions the book provides a lot of exercises that workplaces can use and experiment with during virtual meetings to help people feel more confident and comfortable in their own skin.
“Doing improv exercises online, and even just injecting that into meetings, gives people a chance to break the ice,” she says on how improv can benefit employers and employees as they work from home, “Think outside the box.”
As her improv work gains traction, Stein is putting together a class which will focus on mental health.
To learn more about Fun At Work, go to slightlybetter.ca.