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Improv Is the Gym for Building Resilience

Thursday, July 6, 2017
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CD Reselience
Recently, when someone asked me how I got into the field of applied improv—applying the principles and techniques of improvisational theater to life (in my case, specifically organization development and training)—I found myself telling them about how at 22, I was suddenly paralyzed.

I don’t mean creatively paralyzed (though perhaps that, too). I mean literally paralyzed.

One February morning I took a cab to a New York City emergency room with some strange symptoms. Within a few hours, I was unable to move or feel sensation from my ribcage down. Ultimately, doctors diagnosed me with something called myelitis, an autoimmune disease they later jokingly called a soap opera disease, because of the dramatic way it can come on without warning, and then recede, usually leading to complete recovery. 

Why did a question about applied improv prompt me to share this story? Improv was the resilience gym that helped me recover and get back on my feet quickly and better than ever. It was through this process that I came to value applying improv principles offstage and eventually founded Koppett, a company that specializes in organization development using improv.

The American Psychological Association says resilience can be developed as we: 

  • Make connections. 
  • Accept and embrace change. 
  • Nurture a positive view of ourselves. 
  • Stay flexible. 
  • Allow ourselves to rely on others. 
  • Practice appreciation. 
  • Embrace past experiences as learning opportunities.

Improv teaches us to accept and build with what exists—to accept mistakes as gifts. Improv teaches us to focus on our partners and make them look good. Improv teaches us to ask what the scene needs and provide it.

So when I got sick, instead of spending my time in self-pity, railing at the world, I tried to apply the principles of improv. I asked myself the series of questions that an improv actor would use to approach a scene.

What offers must I accept? 

I had to accept the offer to rest that my new illness presented.

How can I build positively with that reality? 

I read. I slept. I had time away from NYC—the only place that l had come to think one could live. I figured out what I really wanted to do with my life. 

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What is my objective in this scene? 

My newfound time to rest and reflect led me to ask bigger questions about what I wanted out of life. I was a professional actor, but I asked myself if I really wanted to be a movie star (spoiler alert: I didn’t).

What is the possible gift in any mistakes or failures? 

The failure, in this situation, was that I couldn’t walk. What was the gift in that? I got to focus on relearning something very simple: I don’t have to be exceptional. I don’t have to be in competition for some amazing prize. What a gift to have perspective, to find joy in small accomplishments.

How can I focus on my partners instead of myself? 

Nothing can make you sick of yourself more quickly than being a patient for any length of time. Unless it’s being a patient in your parents’ house. As soon as I was well enough, I volunteered to teach acting and improv at my high school. What a joy to go back to my old haunts, to focus on others, and to feel like I had something to offer. I’m sure it was the most healing choice I made.

What does the scene need? 

All this, it is funny to remember, was before the Internet, before cell phones. Even then, especially in New York City, life could get very fast and very overcrowded. Being forced to slow down and, moment by moment, ask what needs to happen now was a wonderful way to forge the path that ultimately led to founding my business. 

Through asking these improv questions and applying and practicing improv tools, I not only recovered, but discovered that what had drawn me to acting in the first place was not a need for fame or to be the center of attention. Rather, it was a desire to connect and play collaboratively, to be seen and heard and accepted. This unexpected detour helped me recognize how many of us are starved for just those things, and that everyone can benefit from the skills and mindset of the improviser. 

True resilience involves not just recovery, but bouncing back stronger than before. It means embracing your experiences and using whatever they are to create and grow. Nothing exercises our capacity to do just that more than improv. Check it out—I’m sure there’s an improv company near you!

Join Kat Koppett in November in West Palm Beach for ATD's TalentNext: Building an Engaged Workforce

About the Author
Kat Koppett is the founder and president of Koppett, a consulting and training company specializing in the use of improvisation and storytelling to enhance workplace effectiveness. Kat has worked with organizations as diverse as Apple, Prezi, GE, Havas Health, the URJ, and the Clinton Global Initiative. Kat is the author of Training to Imagine: Practical Improvisational Theatre Techniques to Enhance Creativity, Teamwork, Leadership, and Learning, considered a seminal work in the field of applied improvisation. Kat has taught and spoken at RPI’s Lally School of Business Stanford and UC Berkeley, as well as ATD, ISPI, the YPA, NASAGA, AIN, and many other organizations. She has given two TEDx talks on the use of improv to enhance nontheatrical performance. Kat is co-director of the Mopco Improv Theatre and the creator of the full-length musical improv format “spontaneous Broadway,” for which  Theatreweek Magazine named her an Unsung Hero of the Year.
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