Virtually improvising your way out of crises

How U of T alumni in The Second City practice what they preach
U of T alumni at The Second City learn to adapt under unprecedented circumstances. COURTESY OF THE SECOND CITY
U of T alumni at The Second City learn to adapt under unprecedented circumstances. COURTESY OF THE SECOND CITY

Improvisation isn’t just the secret ingredient behind popular comedy series Curb Your Enthusiasm — it’s also a key ingredient for thriving in a world that can become abruptly mired in crisis. 

We’ve seen the COVID-19 crisis force both people and organizations to perform outside of their comfort zones. If they’re going to succeed, they’ll need to learn to adapt, and learning to improvise can help them adapt more successfully.

For over 60 years, leaders in the world of improv have been found at The Second City (TSC). TSC is an improv-based sketch comedy theatre, based in Chicago with offshoots in Toronto and Hollywood. As an organization that considers the art of improvisation its fundamental core philosophy, TSC’s seamless transition to an online platform should come as no surprise. They quickly adapted to offer dozens of online classes and performances.

So why would anyone be interested in learning how to improvise? If the TSC’s successful transition isn’t enough to convince you, I recently caught up with three U of T alumni working at TSC and Second City Training Centre (SCTC) to discuss why students could benefit from incorporating improvisation techniques into their daily lives.

Inessa Frantowski, an alum of the UTM program in theatre and drama, now teaches sketch and improv at TSC in Los Angeles. She believes that anyone can benefit from learning improvisational skills. She discussed how practicing improv can benefit you in many other areas of life that you wouldn’t normally expect. For example, it can help you build and improve your relationships in a fun way. 

As a first-generation Canadian, she explained how improv can be great for helping people learn a new language, especially by improving one’s listening skills. A lot of our language is non-verbal communication that, through improv, you learn to identify more fluently, helping you become a more effective communicator. 

Dewi Minden, the musical director at SCTC, studied music composition at U of T after completing a Bachelor of Music at the University of British Columbia and a Master of Music at Laval University. While full of praise for U of T’s academic programs — which she credits with helping her fill any formal gaps she was missing — she said that there are beneficial skills she learned through improv that you wouldn’t expect to find in academia’s sort of serious, rigidly structured, and planned curriculum.

Dave Pearce, who completed his Bachelor of Science degree at U of T before joining TSC as a writer and educator, half-jokingly pondered how improv can be considered a sort of ‘license to humour.’

For Pearce, there’s a practical importance in developing the transferable skills that improv instills, as they are necessary and highly sought after by employers. He discussed how some of the online courses available at TSC aim to help people overcome their anxiety with public speaking. But there’s also another, more subtle, lesson.  

Improv helps you learn how to embrace failure in order to develop and build upon those little moments that might have otherwise been ignored. For example, Pearce shared a time when a slip of the tongue, mishmashing the words coleslaw and sausage into “slawsage,” led him and his troupe-mates on an hour-long improv journey. Improvisation is about harnessing the unexpected.

This sort of spontaneous magic is the key to producing material that could deliver what Paul Sills, a founding father of improvisational theatre, would call an “explosion of laughter.”

Minden explained how improv can help you ignore your more critical mind — which can be more of a hindrance for progress — and enable you to more positively embrace failure. In this way, you’re empowered with the confidence to throw yourself into whatever comes next and “fail big.” After all, in comedy, failure itself can be a tremendous success; for example, when making up lyrics on the spot, the attempt alone can make us laugh.

Frantowski emphasized how improvisation is full of moments that can be somewhat fleeting, and because of this, there’s always some risk. That said, the great thing about improv is you’re not doing it alone: improvisers have each other’s backs. 

With that in mind, I wasn’t surprised to find out about the time when TSC alumni Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Martin Short, Andrea Martin, and Joe Flaherty came to the aid of another TSC member, who was experiencing significant hardships and, in the process, helped establish a long-term alumni fund to support those in need. I think that level of support and commitment to each other is something we need to remember and continue in times of crisis.

All in all, I found the staff at TSC and in particular, this group of U of T alumni to be especially inspiring through their infectious and passionate personalities. During a global pandemic, that is the good kind of infection we should all be open to catch. You can find out more about TSC and try out TSC’s online courses through its website.

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