A business can only be as strong as the communication network it keeps between its employees. Without the ability to communicate a shared vision, and help coworkers voice concerns, businesses can run into serious problems. To learn more about how improv training and performance can help people build empathy and communication skills, we spoke with Mark Chalfant, artistic and executive director at Washington Improv Theater.
ABERMAN: Well, tell us a bit about WIT.
CHALFANT: OK. We’re a nonprofit here in D.C., and we’re basically focused on performing and teaching improv. And that’s both on stage with our performances year round, we do about 300 shows, and classes where you teach about 1600 students. And then, we have a big WIT at Work training program, where we’re taking improv skills into the applied world, and reaching people in all kinds of businesses.
ABERMAN: So, I think that people who are uninformed, perhaps, think that improv is all about humor. But yet, a lot of what you’re doing now is taking the improvisational skill development, and taking it into the workplace, and business training. How do those two parse?
CHALFANT: Well, I think humor can be important. You know, it’s important to have levity when we’re working our butts off all the time. If we’re always serious all the time, we will grind ourselves into a paste. But it’s also just about, I think, listening and being connected to the real moment that’s happening, and that means connecting with your audience if you’re in a speaking situation, or with your teammates if you’re working collaboratively, and really hearing what they’re saying, and really being able to communicate to them what you’re saying. And improv is great at really digging into those communication skills, and those observation skills, and making people sharper communicators.
ABERMAN: So, I’m a musician. And when I perform, and I’m playing the guitar, and the crowd’s in it, there is a feedback loop of a connection that’s really distinctive. Is that what you’re getting at?
CHALFANT: Absolutely. And that feedback loop might be just between two people when you’re having a one on one conversation. There are those conversations that you sort of fake your way through, or phone it in, and then there are those where you’re really hearing them, and we all can feel the difference when we’ve been really heard by somebody, and when we’ve just like, had another meeting that felt the same as all the other meetings.
ABERMAN: So what you’re getting at, in effect, is empathy and the ability to get people to develop empathy in the workplace, without them being berated into being empathetic.
CHALFANT: For sure. And then also the flipside of that is being brave enough to be a little vulnerable, and expose yourself. Like, if you are having an issue with somebody, finding a way to address it, rather than just bottling it up or batting it away.
ABERMAN: Now, when I teach public speaking, one of the statistics that I always share with my students is that, most people are more afraid of public speaking than they are of actually dying. And do you find that one of the ancillary benefits of improv training is that it really makes people understand that being in front of an audience, or speaking with people, actually isn’t something be afraid of?
CHALFANT: Yeah, for sure. A lot of people come to improve specifically to get through that fear. And I think there are two things that they’re afraid of. One is, they are afraid of that audience. The idea of being judged, or being seen as like not enough. But then, the other thing that they’re afraid of is really themselves. They’re afraid to really show the real experience that they’re having. They think that they have to sort of be presenting this perfect wrapped up presentation of who they are. And when you get past that, and realize that people are actually much more interested in seeing your authentic self, warts and all, then you get a little more comfortable, I think, just being yourself in that setting.
ABERMAN: I completely agree. There’s also something else that strikes me about improv, or any sort of performing. It’s almost thrilling, in a way. I mean, how would you describe it? You’re a performer, and clearly, looking at your background, a lot of your life is about shaping people’s lives through humor, and through these opportunities. What is it about it that that makes it thrilling?
CHALFANT: I think, for the audience, there is that energy of unpredictability. They know that the performers are up there on a stage, and they don’t necessarily know what’s happening next. So you’re sort of watching different layers of the performance. You’re watching actors, but you’re also watching, really, playwrights or script writers, making choices about a story, about a moment. And so, you get to see the thrill of everyone on stage, as well as everyone in the audience with you, experiencing the surprise at the same time.
There is a sense of danger, I think, because you realize this could fail, and in any given moment, you might feel like, oh, that seemed like a bad move. I feel like the scene is deflating now, or whatever. And you feel this in your gut, you’re not necessarily thinking of it through this cerebral lens. But then the players on stage will find a different way to find agreement, and then you’re enjoying it again.
It’s really tension that’s going up and down that is behind so much comedy, and getting that experience with a group of people, and knowing that you’re the only humans on the planet who are ever going to see this performance, because there’s no script. It’s never going to happen again. There’s something really thrilling about that.
ABERMAN: It’s really interesting to me, as you describe it. It’s the difference between the solitary excitement of say, downhill skiing or parachuting, which can be incredibly exhilarating and thrilling, but is fundamentally a solitary experience. It sounds to me like, again, you’re just driving the development of that empathy gene in people. It’s a shared thrill.
CHALFANT: It is a shared thrill, but it also is a team sport. You know, to extend your metaphor. It’s a little bit more like basketball. We frequently say that we have to rehearse. And people ask, well, how can you rehearse if it’s improvised? And it’s just like a basketball team needs to practice their skills, even though their practice doesn’t include the team that they’re going to play next Saturday.
You’ll play that game when that team shows up. So, you’ll do that show when the audience arrives, but you’ve got to build your skills. And the other shift I would make is, instead of it being like basketball, is it’s it’s more like a game we call Calvinball. Which is literally a game that we play in improv where the people who are playing create the rules of the game as they play it. And so, it’s about agreeing, but it’s also about making new creative choices, to keep the game engaging.
ABERMAN: That must be fascinating to watch.
CHALFANT: It’s a thrill.
ABERMAN: Well, if I was interested in doing this as an individual, or have my business. How do I come to WIT and interact with you guys?
CHALFANT: Our website! Just google Washington Improv Theater, find us at witdc.org. We have a workplace training program called WIT at Work, and we see clients throughout the region, and also other places. We go down to Dallas regularly to work with people at Deloitte. We’ve worked with some teams at World Bank, at some other off site locations. We’re doing workshops like this weekly, and it’s always interesting to see how these ideas intersect with different businesses from banking to, I guess our longest standing client is Goodwill International. We’re a part of their leadership module, when they’re training new people into their program.
ABERMAN: Well, I have to tell you, Mark, I think this has been really fun. And also, as an improv, this interview went really extremely well. We created something that will never be seen or heard again, other than online. So, thanks for joining us today.