A perfect Intro to Improv

I did a bite size one hour intro to improv with a delicious team of young, energetic finance/business people yesterday. It was fantastic. What a responsive group. They worked hard in that hour and managed to pull off fantastic things. Listening to everyone in the debriefing afterwards gave me strong clues that the idea of the positive, the ‘yes’, the listening, sharing and taking forward, had all taken hold. They (and I) were inspired afterwards. I left with such positive energy.

Then, on the plane home, I sat next to a woman, and her subordinate sat across the aisle from her, making it not only possible but unavoidable for me to hear their entire two hour interaction. Her ‘everything’ was exactly how not to be. Her style, energy, intentions and constant default to negative were so destructive.

I couldn’t help but make a few ‘notes to self’.

1. An improvisation experience tries to open the door to a different culture of communicating. the key words are fun, response ability, positivity.

2. We want to be able to trust people enough so that we can be vulnerable, make mistakes, take risks. We don’t want a culture of blame and passing the buck.

3. Negative conversations are dangerous. People spend so much time complaining when they talk to each other; often slagging off a third party, the competition, the boss, someone else in the team. Mostly, a culture of ‘what does she say about me?’ then pervades. People also spend so much time putting each other down.

4. In business, people often play cruel status games, where they are constantly on the lookout for the opportunity to hurt, crush, belittle or dismiss. I propose the opposite; the learning of habits that help us look for the moment to sincerely compliment, encourage, offer support, work together.

I got off the plane exhausted but happy. This woman’s subordinate got off the plane in a state of paranoid anxiety. The woman got off the plane expecting disappointment.

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Great look at improv rules

My friend and colleague Jon Keevy has written a fabulous article on the rules of improv.

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I have connected with Charlie Beall, an MBA student at UCT’s Graduate School of Business and become his ‘research project’. He is looking at the effectiveness of introducing the skills of ¬†improvisation into the business environment. Effectively, what this means is that he has set up a series of workshops for me, with incredibly diverse groups of people, and he is participating and doing follow-up interviews which I will then have access to. It’s a wonderful way of getting the work I do ‘out there’ and it really helps to have someone passionately behind it.

Charlie’s classmates were our first guinea pigs last Friday, and I have to admit to being quite taken with them. They were young, exciting and dynamic, and responded to the work with a wonderful gung-ho attitude.

On Saturday morning we worked with a tiny group of Sanlam people whose jos during the week are incredibly stressful. this group were quite shy in the beginning, but gradually warmed up and ended up doing amazing and creative things, full of generosity and fun.

Today I am working with a small on-line media company this morning, and some UCT academics this afternoon – two totally diverse groups. It will be so interesting to see if they receive the work any differently. Exciting stuff.

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The Essence of Industrial Theatre

Yesterday we performed to our first audience of about 600 petrol pump attendants and cashiers. Today is our second show here in Cape Town and then the show goes around the country, performing in all the major centres.

I always need to see how the audience respond; they are who I have in mind from the very beginning. When coming up with a concept, before writing the script, you have to have the target audience clearly in sight. Who are they? What are their points of reference? Do they watch TV? What are their influences?

Industrial theatre often has to sit between what the client (the boss, who signs it off and pays for it) wants and what the target audience (most often the workers) will benefit the most from. It’s a bit of a balancing act that doesn’t always happen the way you imagine it will. It’s also about picking your fights; knowing which ones you’ll win and which ones you’ll just have to let go. Still, it’s great to work in an area of business where I have the theatrical expertise.

Yesterday it felt like the audience was listening really hard, which is good. The cast were nervous; it’s quite a thing performing to such a huge crowd after rehearsing in a tiny room. I can’t wait to see if everything ‘lights’ up today.

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We are doing our technical in the venue today, and our first show is tomorrow. Almost there!

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The Client Viewing

Engen Dynamic Live

Today we are doing a dress rehearsal for the client. They saw the show last week, with the actors in their rehearsal clothes and still on book (with scripts in their hands) and it went down well. Today they will see the ‘look and feel’ of the show too, albeit in a rehearsal room.

We have been having great fun. So much so that we are talking about sticking together and creating our own Christmas show! We all have some brilliant ideas. Watch this space.

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Rehearsals 2

Here is a pic from our rehearsals this week, and introducing … the chair! We love the chair!

Here Larissa Hughes and Ntombi Makhutshi test out their characters.

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Granted, it is only day two of a three week rehearsal process, but I am instantly in love with my cast. I am deeply proud of myself for having chosen so stunningly well. They are bringing the script alive with such commitment and enthusiasm and are full of great ideas. We are in the laughter and discovery stage, and are cracking up all over the place. They are unbelievably fast and sharp too. How lucky am I to be able to enjoy my work this much?

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The Cast

One of the hardest choices to make is that of a cast. I am about to go into rehearsals for a big industrial theatre show and I had to audition and then select a cast of five to perform what will be a 35 minute play that will go around South Africa as part of a road show.

Auditions were three days of roller coaster. Some actors were brilliantly prepared and had given their audition some creative thought. Others had fits of nerves. Some were so good but not suitable, some were suitable but not good enough, others were plain useless.

The hardest part was choosing from those who were good, and making choices that have to do with group dynamics, balance, age, status, energy and size of performance. In this country colour still plays a major part. There are still jobs that are mainly performed by black people and white people are still the majority when it comes to being the boss.

After a weekend of deliberation and going through the permutations, I settled on my final cast and it is so exciting. Watch this space for pictures and updates.

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Brilliant Gibberish

In South Africa we have 11 official ways of not understanding each other. We are specialists in using language, culture, education, society, class, history, in fact whatever we can think of, to excuse a total lack of communication. And it’s true; we do all approach things from very divergent and extreme places.

This is why I am totally in love with Gibberish. For those of you who can’t remember making up words and speaking nonsense to childhood friends, that’s what Gibberish is. It is actual, made up language, where the words are not from a known existing one. Bersti falgashon elepensy lunses.

We always do a bit of Gibberish in the improvisation workshops that I run. We play games where Gibberish is the only language allowed. After the initial fear, and usual sound effects instead of words, participants start to get the idea. It’s not what you say but how you say it, in the most literal sense of the word. A person’s intention comes across through all the clues that we miss when we concentrate on the words. We read body language and facial expressions. We listen to voice quality, inflection and tone. We use more parts of ourselves. We respond as if we had understood everything, because, somehow we have. When we are speaking in Gibberish we work doubly hard to make sure we have been absolutely clear. The most powerful part of working in Gibberish is being able to cross the language barrier for people who so often are forced to communicate in a language that is not their mother tongue. Communication is much faster and freer. And it is devoid of the usual status differences that fluency, or the lack of it, generally creates. Because we are improvising, making it up as we go along, we really have to hear and feel what somebody else is saying. We have to listen differently; listen for intention and meaning. We have to be there differently; without expectation or preconception.

We also have fun differently when we are playing in Gibberish. We laugh with each other. Our play is more innocent and our responses are more sincere. It’s hard to lie in Gibberish, or to read between the lines. There are no lines. It’s a whole new, much more open and friendly world.

Today I was rehearsing in the same hotel where I ran the improv workshops last week. I saw one of the cleaners who had participated in one of the sessions. When he saw me his face lit up. And he announced his joy at seeing me in a rush of Gibberish! What an absolutely delightful, affirming and delicious moment.

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