Subtitle: Imagination taking power

“I suck, and I love to fail”: a weekend of learning to improvise

Last week I joined seven others people in London for a Level 1A Improvisation training, led by Jeremy Finch of the Spontaneity Shop.  I was intrigued by improv, and in taking some time and space to learn how, as an adult, to play again.  As adults in 2017, we don’t play very much.  As Tom Salinsky and Deborah Frances-White, founders of Spontaneity Shop, wrote in ‘The Improv Handbook’, “many adults have simply stopped being creative, so those muscles are tired and atrophied.  The imagination is like a scared animal – it needs cossetting and encouraging”.  And so there we were, gathered in a room in an arts centre in London, all looking slightly nervous, but ready to cosset and encourage our imaginations.

Jeremy set up the thinking behind the approach at the very beginning, giving us the improv mantra, “I suck, and I love to fail” (we had to repeat it like a mantra).  Giving ourselves permission to try things, with no expectations of brilliance, celebrating ‘failure’ … so far, so Transition.  I asked Jeremy what it was that the course was setting out to teach us:

“Improv is creative collaboration.  It’s making stuff up, on the spot, often in front of an audience.  It involves generating material in the moment.  It also involves engaging with your creative partners, listening, being present.  It has a Zen-like ‘in-the-moment’ aspect.  It’s also about understanding story structures, how we create compelling story narratives that enchant us or move us, or capture our imaginations.  It’s about becoming an actor and a writer at the same time”.

Over the two days, we played many different exercises (I won’t give them all away, in case you decide to do the course!), as well as doing some great activities that built attention and focus.  I especially loved on very silly exercise called ‘Village Elders’.  People stand in a circle, all stroking their imaginary long beards, like wise village elders.  You take it in turns going round the circle, each saying one word, until you have a sentence that sounds like it could be some kind of wise saying, at which point everyone strokes their beards and says “mmmmmm”, as though some great pearl of wisdom has just been delivered.  A brilliant re-energiser in a meeting that is feeling a bit stuck.

Jeremy insisted that he wasn’t teaching us new skills, rather that we were “remembering a more open, child-like state … which is part of the deep knowledge we have as human beings”.  Play is how we learn, he told me.  As we get older we become more rigid, so a course like this is a remembering of a freer state.

Tom Salinsky and Deborah Frances-White, founders of The Spontaneity Shop.

We did lots of storytelling exercises.  In one, you go round, each adding bits to a story, with different prompts … “Once there was…”, “And every day…”, “Until one day…”, “And because of that (this one could be repeated several times)”…, “Until finally…”, and “And ever since then…”  We learnt to feel OK with uncertainty.  As Jeremy told the group, “”I have no idea where this is going” is the improv artist’s art”.  We also used ‘Story Cubes’, which prompted some great stories.  We learnt many of the elements that make a compelling story, one that you feel invested in and want to hear more about.

One of the most important things we learnt was “Yes, and”.  It’s an exercise that starts in pairs, and one person makes a suggestion. “Let’s go on holiday!”  The role of the second person is to shut that down, outraged at the very idea. “You know I can’t go on holiday, I just broke my legs!”  They then make another suggestion that the first person shuts down in a similar way, and so on.

In the second version, the first person makes a suggestion, and the second person responds with a huge lack of enthusiasm.  “We could go on holiday, I suppose.  But I’m really feeling too tired, and I’d rather we didn’t”.  In the last version, you respond to your partner’s suggestion with a “yes, and”.  You build a chain where each suggestion is based on what the previous person has offered.  So it’s about listening, and building on the offers from your partner.  And in a world where we more often encounter “yes, but”, it’s hugely liberating and energising, and it unlocks huge amounts of creative energy.

As Salinsky and Frances-White put it:

“Saying yes to your partner’s idea represents a risk.  You have to let an alien idea in and, if you have to build on it, you have to let it influence you.  You can’t plan your response in advance, it depends on what your partner offers”.

After the course, I spoke to some of my fellow participants about how they had found it.  Paolo told me “as adults living in the city, we’re very good at staying in our little boxes.  I think we’re a bit scared to come out of those boxes.  This gives you an opportunity to come out of your box and experience something a bit different”.

For Tony, he found that ‘Yes, and’ gave him more confidence to accept other people’s ideas, supporting other people’s ideas, and being a better listener.  For Bibi, we were relearning to play, but not to play as a child, rather to play as an adult, “finding depths of playfulness in yourself”, as she put it.  You can hear more responses, and more from Jeremy, in this podcast I made about the weekend:

For me, one reason I did the course was that I was looking for ways to bring the imagination more into talks I give.  How can I given presentations which move away from the traditional “lecturer-at-front-of-hall-with-slides” format?  I already include elements of audience participation and I do a lot of storytelling with, hopefully, quite a humorous approach, but what more could I do?  I asked Jeremy, and his suggestion was:

“How do you get an audience involved?  You get them involved in the story.  How do you get them involved in a story?  By making them the heroes and heroines of that story.  Tell a story about the people you are speaking to”.

I like that idea.  Not quite sure yet what that will look like in practice, but I’m going to give it a go.  ‘Yes, and’ feels like a vital part of working with others to enable them to imagine the future in a positive way.  A few months ago I interviewed Deborah Frances-White, and I asked her how ‘Yes and’ could be applied to Transition, or to approaches mobilising new thinking about climate change.  She told me:

“What usually happens is someone says, “we could do this”, and someone else immediately says, “well they tried that in Japan and it didn’t work because…” or, “well we wouldn’t have the budget for that”.  There’s so much “no”.  So much “no”.  So I would say find ways of genuinely creating rewards for yes in the first instance, and playful environments where we’re not editing as we go, we’re editing later.  But reassure people that edits will happen later, because otherwise they panic.  They panic that yes means conclusion, it’s done.  Yes is just we’re looking for quantity not quality at the top.  And then through this massive amount of quantity we will find quality”.

Martin Ophoven lives in Belgium and works with groups using improv.  He is also very involved in Transition, working as a Transition Trainer.  He told me “I use improvising training games to activate people’s mindsets to act without plan, to have pleasure to be in the unknown, to face their fear, to unleash pleasure to build together. We all are improvisers”.  For him, the three things improv brings to Transition are:

  1. Confidence: that you are not alone, that together we can do something positive, nourishing and fun. When we do public speaking, we often feel constrained to just focus on content.  Improv suggests that we can just be ourself, and find our own way to present our ideas
  2. Pleasure: it’s fun, it allows us to play with no objective or expected result
  3. Connected thinking: the ability to make links between things that don’t appear to be connected.

Now that I’m home, what did I get from the course?  Firstly, I have some great exercises to do with groups.  Secondly, I feel more committed to bringing “yes, and” to conversations and projects.  Thirdly, that part of my brain that makes the kind of random connections you see in improv feels well honed, my imagination muscle has had a good workout.  And lastly, playfulness is infectious.  Laughter and delight are infectious, both for the performer and for the audience.  The process of working with those around us to really imagine a positive future will require all of the above.


Photos: Top: The Second City.  Bottom: Syracuse Improv Comedy. Didn’t feel appropriate to take photos in the workshop I attended, would have spoilt the focus!



  1. Paolo
    September 26, 2017

    Fantastic write up of a great weekend. Happy to have shared it with you Rob! Perhaps we will meet again in another improve class in the future 🙂

  2. Rob Hopkins
    September 26, 2017

    Cheers Paolo, it was a pleasure. I think that deliberately pushing yourself out of your comfort zone on a regular basis is a great way to organise your life! Good luck with it all…

  3. Martin
    October 10, 2017

    Great to read the report of your experience. Thanks for the nice talk! Enjoy you new “improv” dimension

  4. phil
    October 18, 2017

    great stuff rob! thanks again for sharing your thoughts. i really admire how you’re continually searching, exploring and tickling the edges. and in all the times reading your forays in imagination (and other ideas) have you met with dougald hine of the dark mountain project (and much more)? i’d love to see you riff on all things improv, connecting people to each other, matters ecological and everything in between. thanks again!

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