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The “Yes, and” advantage: How to cultivate an improv culture

(Image: Dad's Garage)

As I like to say: “Nonprofit is a tax status, not a business model.” Just like every other business in this emergency situation, nonprofits have had to reconsider their models – in terms of finances, management, and service delivery – for the sake of ourselves and those who count on us.

Though Dad’s Garage Theatre has built a diversity of revenue streams, allowing us to create a strong financial base – including a $100,000 operating reserve thanks to a generous capitalization grant from the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta, and a $100,000 line of credit through a bank we’ve worked with over five years – what makes us uniquely positioned to respond to this crisis is our commitment to improvisation.

At Dad’s Garage, it isn’t just our performances that are rooted in improv: We’ve integrated the principles of improv into every aspect of our work.

What makes us uniquely positioned to respond to this crisis is our commitment to improvisation.

When folks learn about improv, the first thing they hear about is the concept of “Yes, and...” At its core, this means actively building on a proposed idea, but it also means withholding judgement of those ideas – your own and others’ – and meeting people where they are.

Dad’s Garage practices a particular kind of improv, rooted in narrative, kindness, and care for your scene partners. Our theatre produces more than 400 stage shows annually, and COVID-19 put a complete stop to all of them; but the principles contained in our approach to improv have allowed us to pivot successfully to digital programming.

I’d like to share with you some of the tenets of our improv philosophy, and how they can help you through this time of crisis. I hope that you will be inspired to bring these ideas to your nonprofit right now; we have long taught these principles to businesses through our corporate training program, and we can confirm, first-hand, their utility in helping to get through this time.

1. Say “Yes, and…” to new ideas.
The basis of improv is agreement with, and building on, the ideas of others. A lot of people think this means saying yes to every project that gets pitched, foreseeing a big, complicated mess. Rather, “Yes, and…” is about finding the seed of a great idea, nurturing it, and adapting as you move forward to help that idea grow.

For instance, Dad’s Garage was supposed to hold a huge festival fundraiser on March 28 with a silent auction. Obviously, it had to be cancelled – but a team member suggested that, because all the auction items were secured, we put the auction online. Another coworker added to that, suggesting we hold the auction over several days, rather than just on the 28th. The ideas from our team kept coming in, and everyone contributed in the ways that they were able. The auction took place online over the course of a week, and ended up one of our most successful silent auctions ever.

This was the “Yes, and…” culture at work. Without it, we probably would have decided that an online silent auction was too big a lift, and we wouldn’t have tried it. Now, we don’t just have extra revenue on-hand, but a successful new model that we’ll likely use for all our silent auctions in the future.

2. Focus on the narrative.
A good story has a beginning, middle, and end – and so does all of the improv we create at Dad’s Garage. While it may not feel like it right now, the COVID-19 crisis will also have a beginning, a middle, and (soon, hopefully) an end.

Sometimes, in real life and in improv scenes, we get stuck in the middle: It feels like things just keep happening, with nothing to push us towards an ending. We have to ask ourselves, “What is the ending we want to get to, and what can we do to get there?”

One endpoint Dad’s Garage is aiming for: finishing a variety of facility upgrades that, frankly, we’ve never had the time to pull off. Prior to COVID-19, we produced up to 8 shows a week, and had something happening at our facility every day. With our facility empty, we were (prior to the shelter-at-home order) able to tackle social-distancing-friendly upgrades like re-striping the parking lot, fixing the elevator, and touching up paint around the building.

The narrative we’re creating: Dad’s Garage is using this time off to focus on the work we’ve never had the time or space to do. The beginning was planning for what we could achieve, the middle is carrying out all the projects involved, and the end result will be a fresher facility ready to re-welcome the public.

3. Operate from a place of possibility.
Every single day, we have a choice: We can look fearfully upon this disruption as a threat to our bottom line, or we can look at it as an opportunity to find new possibilities in our work.

So often in our work, we operate from a place of fear, worrying about what could go wrong and what happens if we fail. But if that’s all you focus on, that’s all you’ll find. While you plan for the worst, you’ve got to expect the best.

Prior to the outbreak, Dad’s Garage was laying the groundwork for a building expansion. I could have very easily reacted to this moment with fear by pulling the plug on those efforts, meaning to save us headaches and heartaches down the line. Instead, I am looking at all the possibilities that this time off has given me to better figure out how to make this expansion happen.

Operating from a place of possibility also unleashes the creative potential of your team: It’s hard to be creative problem-solvers if we’re only talking about worst-case scenarios.

Rather than pause all your hard work, consider shoring up your plans: Look at all the possibilities for what you want to achieve, and dig deeper into how you can work toward your goals during the emergency, and once it’s over. Then, adjust your roadmap accordingly.

4. Take care of your team.
In improv, we recognize that each individual must work to help their teammates succeed. Taking care of your team means knowing what else is going on in their lives, being aware of their physical and emotional health, and modeling the behavior you expect to see.

For instance, working from home makes it easy to get into a never-off, always-working mindset, especially in the midst of a crisis. We all know that isn’t sustainable; as a leader, modeling that behavior only sets your team up for failure.

Our mission at Dad’s Garage is to transform people, communities, and perspective through laughter. The medium in which we’ve done it might have changed over the past couple of weeks, but the intention and outcome has not. Dig deep into the “why” of what you do, and you’ll find ways you can deliver on it, even in the midst of this crisis.

Lara Smith is the managing director of Dad’s Garage Theatre, an improv and scripted-comedy theatre located in Atlanta that produces more than 400 performances, and entertains more than 30,000 patrons, each year.

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