Back in the late-1990s through late-2000s, when improvisational comedy ruled America’s nightclubs and Whose Line secured constant ratings, certain big-city improv troupes invented an idea for increased income. They rented themselves out to corporations for team-building workshops and executive activities. These events possibly encouraged group unity and mutual trust, maybe. But improv performer and management consultant Bob Kulhan questions whether they actually improved bottom-line corporate outcomes.
Kulhan, a Second City graduate, still moonlights in improv, while running his consultancy and adjuncting at Duke University’s business school, a genuine triple threat. He brings his interdisciplinary approach to asking: does improv actually teach anything useful for business? Yes, Kulhan says, but only with modifications that full-time actors probably don’t realize they need. Arguably, though, Kulhan doesn’t realize he’s resurrecting improv’s original purpose.
Improv instructors have an activity called “Yes And.” Two (or more) performers construct a scene by agreeing with one another. One posits some statement—“Well, here we are in Egypt”—and the other agrees, while adding something further—“Yes, and destined to discover King Hatsupbashet’s lost tomb!” Ideally, the performers hear one another clearly enough to build something profound, without contradicting or opposing one another.
This, Kulhan insists, represents how business professionals ought to communicate. Rather than battling for terrain or engaging in one-upmanship, the twin banes of loners seeking individual reward, business people should collaborate, listening intently in the moment without preplanning rejoinders or seeking ways to torpedo colleagues. MBA teachers will say this freely, of course, but actual professionals, desperate to make themselves immune to automation, often squabble for insignificant territory.
Kulhan delves into particular ramifications, like idea generation, team-building in time-sensitive environments, and generating enthusiasm even when individuals are fatigued. He doesn’t waste busy professionals’ time with stage games like Freeze Tag or Word Ball, which hone performance skills but have questionable offstage outcomes. Instead, he side-coaches readers on productive conversations where they strive to advance others’ ideas and build team momentum, without seeking the next response or personal reward.
Having done improv in college, and having seen the disastrous outcomes of self-seeking teammates in working life, I applaud Kulhan’s enthusiasm. I’d love the opportunity to employ the principles he describes in my workplace, and perhaps someday, if circumstances break my way, I will. That said, I wonder if he realizes he isn’t actually adding anything new to the discussion. Though the original purpose has gotten lost, the ideas Kulhan describes are why modern improv was first invented.
Viola Spolin used her WPA grant to create numerous improv games, some original to her, others reclaimed from Italian commedia dell'arte tradition. She taught these games in Chicago-area schools and community centers, believing that poor children didn’t learn at home the critical listening skills common to children of the wealthy and upwardly mobile. Her son, Paul Sills, carried these games into theatre, when he co-founded Second City in 1959.
Despite his Second City roots, Kulhan never mentions Spolin in the text or index. She gets one fleeting citation in the endnotes, so transitory that I suspect he doesn’t realize how close he’s stumbled to gold. Rather than creating something new, he’s recaptured the reason Spolin invented improvisation, a reason lost behind a richly decorated history of unscripted theatre. This gives Kulhan’s message a certain poignancy, one which I suspect he doesn’t even realize he’s uncovered.
Honestly, I did improve in college, even staging a successful team performance, without ever discovering this history. I didn’t know Viola Spolin had non-theatrical ends in mind until after graduate school, when I stumbled upon the information accidentally. I presume Kulhan similarly never knew improv’s history as professional skills development, or he’d cite more sources from Spolin and her peers. Like me, Kulhan probably doesn’t know the full lost history.
So, though Kulhan doesn’t say anything necessarily new, he says something much-needed. In a business milieu long clouded by individualists seeking their rewards while fearing the eternal spectre of automation, improv skills offer the uniquely human opportunity of innovation through team unity. Viola Spolin knew this around 1940, but the information got lost. Bob Kulhan brings it back.