Making the World a Nicer Place

Niceness is Priceless workshop at Four Georgians Elementary School

Niceness is Priceless workshop at Four Georgians Elementary School

Following our summer performance of Playground Business Ventures, our original sketch show for educators, we here at Improv Mining Co. were convinced there was more we could do for Helena’s schools and students. So in late summer we launched the Creativity Project.

The Creativity Project was designed, with guidance from the amazing people at the Detroit Creativity Project, to teach literacy and emotional intelligence to students in Helena’s schools through improvisation skills, games, and activities. We use these tools to help students connect with difficult subjects in a way that’s fun, engaging, and impactful.

In just the last two months we’ve already brought the project to almost 50 high school and middle school students, and amazingly, over 200 fourth and fifth graders, with many more to come.

The Capital High Niceness is Priceless Club

The Capital High Niceness is Priceless Club

One of the most inspiring elements of this project so far has been our partnership with Capital High School’s Niceness is Priceless Club. These students are fantastic. Their whole club is designed to make students feel welcomed, included, and to spread kindness through simple interactions and by seeking out opportunities to be helpful in their school.

These kids throw surprise parties for their janitor, take new students out to coffee, wipe off their peer’s windshields when it snows, and make an extra effort to hang with the students who have special needs in their school. They do all this, and more, on top of their commitment to perform random acts of kindness as often as possible. If that weren’t enough, they’re also committed to establishing Niceness is Priceless (or NP) clubs in all the elementary schools across the district. Which is where we come in.

For the past few weeks I’ve been partnering with these amazing students and their fearless leader, science teacher Christina Sieminski, to teach the NP Norms (Inclusion, Welcoming, Kindness, and Helpfulness) to fourth and fifth grade students around the district, in the hopes that these students can then model and teach them to the younger students, making each school in town a nicer place to be.

Niceness is Priceless Workshop at Bryant Elementary School

Niceness is Priceless Workshop at Bryant Elementary School

We’ve already been to Jim Darcy, Bryant, Four Georgians, and Hawthorn, with many more schools on the schedule. We’re planning a workshop for CR Anderson and a half-day intensive for the fourth and fifth graders that are most interested in leading these clubs at their schools as well.

So far, the elementary school kids have been extremely engaged and excited to participate. After one of our workshops a teacher told us, in the last hour she’d seen kids smile that hadn’t smiled at school all year. Part of that might be the fun improv games we use to disarm, welcome, and teach the kids, but chances are, most of that joy comes from hanging out with high school students who remind us that a little bit of kindness goes a long, long way.

We’ll keep you updated on the really fun work going on through the Creativity Project in the coming months. If you’d like the Creativity Project to come to your school or classroom, you can learn more here or get in touch with us through the link below. We’d love to work with you. Also, if you really like this project and would be interested in supporting it financially, get in touch. We’d love your help.

-By James Buscher

On Failure

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I’ve been thinking about failure a good deal lately.

This is partly because after three years of working hard to get hired, then another three of teaching, I’ve been told that my contract with the Helena School District will not be renewed. I wasn’t told why this decision was made. My students have succeeded by all our program’s measurements and my evaluations have been glowing for as long as I’ve been in this position. But nonetheless, despite my best efforts, I will not be returning to teach with the Helena School District this fall.

A great irony of this is that my classroom is built around turning failure into learning. I encourage students to try things that might not work, to submit answers they’re unsure of, to openly discuss texts they may not fully understand. I ask them to embrace each failure as an opportunity to improve.

This perspective on failure is directly connected to my experience with improv. Improv is an exercise in failure. The joy of some forms relies completely on failure. We find humor and fun in our inability to accomplish certain tasks, like being unable to rhyme, or speak in Elizabethan English, or to deliver a fitting pun.

The failing is part of the fun.

I recently took a break from performing short form games partially because I felt I’d lost the freedom to fail within them. They became rote and I’d grown too comfortable with the comedic mechanisms. Failing became more difficult, and without the excitement of potential failure, the games became less fun.

In this sabbatical I’ve explored some forms that are more challenging and have fewer safety nets, like our In Progress show, in which two or three of us improvise for an hour with nothing but our mutual commitment to each moment driving the show forward.

This show is scary for me because there’s never a blueprint. There’s no structure, no game, no edits, no escape route to fall back on, we don’t even take a suggestion from the audience. It’s a frightening undertaking, and I love it.

The nerves in the moment between when the lights go out and when they come back on at the beginning of the show remind me of the electricity I felt 13 years ago when improv was brand new to me.

I’ve heard it said the reason kids should play sports isn’t to learn how to win, it’s to learn how to lose. This is the same reason adults should do improv, to learn that failure, and how we handle it, is central to our growth.

So in this season of readjustment, I’m trying to embrace this failure I don’t fully understand as a true improviser should, with an eye toward the next scene and an opportunity to discover the joy waiting just around the corner.

- By James Buscher

My Most Common Typo

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One superfluous “e” messes up a good percentage of my text messages, emails, and documents.

One little “e” changes my nouns and adjectives into an unintended verb.

One annoying “e” makes me sound like I don’t know what I’m talking about, and as an English teacher, editor, and poet, this drives me crazy.

Most people don’t notice. But that’s not the point. I notice. I know when that extra “e” has attached itself to the end of my intended word like a little barnacle on a ship’s rudder.

The problem with this typo, is that it doesn’t even register as a typo. Technically, the word I’m trying to spell is the typo, and by the grace of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Robocop, this little “e” is supposed to be my grammatical savior.

The issue here, which I’m sure you’ve gathered already, is that I’m trying to spell “improv,” but every device I own wants to change the word to “improve”.

So I end up typing out text messages to my wife that say, “Are we going to improve tonight?” To which she’ll respond, “Well that depends, sweetie. Will you be ruining dinner again?” Burn. Unnecessary burn.

Or I’ll email another improviser, “What’s your favorite improve activity?” With the obvious response, “Therapy.”

But one time I don’t mind this typo is when I’m writing about improv class. I’ve come to realize that improv class and improve class are essentially the same thing.

Yes, technically I mean “improvisational comedy class,” but I also one-hundred-percent mean “skills that help improve your life class.” I say this because skills that make for good improv comedy are skills that also make for improved relationships, business interactions, parenting strategies, etc.

For example, when we work to shift our improv perspective toward “Yes, and,” we’re really developing skills that help us see and value other people’s perspectives and orienting ourselves toward what we can give instead of what we can get.

When we focus on paying intense attention to our scene partners, we’re also practicing skills that help us better understand what our friends, partners, kids, and coworkers are really trying to say.

When we flail onstage for the first time, we confront our fear in a safe environment and learn that failure doesn’t have to mean we’re done traveling, it can mean we’re one step closer to getting where we want to go.

In these ways, and so many more, improv class and improve class are truly interchangeable.

What may be my most common typo, may also be my most accurate.

- By James Buscher

The Next Little Thing

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Here’s what I learned in improv class:

  1. Don’t try to be funny

  2. Just do the next little thing

Trying to be funny leads to death...that slow, painful, witnessed-by-everyone death that we all fear. Trying to be funny is like trying to make a bowel movement happen when you don’t really need to. You’ll just make a bunch of noise, embarrass yourself, and probably pop a blood vessel or two.

The weird thing is that when you stop trying to be funny and just do the next little thing that comes into your head, sometimes it’s really funny...not always... but sometimes.  

In improv class, when I thought I was going to need to try to be funny, that just made me freeze up, shrink to the back, and do nothing. When I realized that I didn’t have to (actually SHOULDN’T) try to be funny, I relaxed and just did stuff that came into my head. Sometimes the stuff that came into my head that I did was funny! Sometimes, it wasn’t, but it wasn’t embarrassing because I hadn’t really tried to do anything...I had just done something.  

Thinking about just doing the next little thing really helped me.

Think about it this way: Life is like one big improv scene. Someone says something to you and you say something back. You do something and someone does something because of that and then a little story ensues. Sometimes life is funny, just like improv scenes are sometimes funny.

The cool thing about improv class is that you learn some “rules” that help guide things to be funnier and more fun and these same rules can help make your life funnier and more fun, too,...rules like “Agree that this is really happening. Stop asking so many questions,” and “Try to make your partner look good.”

Improv is a great team sport, and taking an improv class will help you be a better player in life.

- By Katy Wright

Crossing the Improv Threshold

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My first step into the magical world of improv comedy was a result of pure peer pressure.

I was walking through the atrium entryway of my high school in late April, on my way out to the parking lot where my black Cutlass Ciera was waiting in all her high-school-hand-me-down-automobile glory, when Clay Ingram grabbed me and said, “You’re gonna come audition.”

It was a statement. Not a question. Not a request.

Clay was in my high school’s improv troupe, Exit 16 (pronounced “Exit One-Six’), and I’d seen their shows a few times in my first year as a new student in the strange, strange land of Liberty, Missouri, USA. We were in photography class together and spent most of our time in that class riffing on whatever topics seemed appropriate (or inappropriate, as it were).

I don’t remember what exactly we talked about, but I remember the conversations as fun, intelligent, and refreshingly organic for a kid who was trying to figure out where he fit in as a Junior in a new school, state, and culture.

I hadn’t considered auditioning for Exit 16, so when Clay intercepted me I don’t know if I said anything back, just nodded, or stared vacantly into space while he pulled me through the auditorium doors.

In the audition, I sat in the blue foldy theater chairs until my name was called. Then I jumped on stage and did a scene in which I awkwardly failed at hitting on my female scene partner in our improvised car parked at an improvised make-out point. I wasn’t playing a character so much as I was naturally being afraid of girls, in front of people.

Then those people laughed. I didn’t know why, but they laughed. I was just doing the thing that felt the most honest, and they thought it was funny.

I wasn’t trying to make a joke. I was trying to tap into that organic riffing feeling from photography class. This was one of the few times that year I remember feeling comfortable.

That feeling of comfort and belonging would stay with me through my Senior year playing with Exit 16, and the thirteen years I’ve spent improvising beyond that point.  

But it never would have happened if one guy didn’t get in my way and drag me into something that would become an entire sprawling world in my life.

If you haven’t gathered already that the dude writing about what is essentially playing make-believe on stage is a nerd, let me remove all doubt: I feel like I got pushed into the world beyond the wardrobe, pulled through platform nine and three-quarters, I got my ass kicked out of the Shire and into the never-ending adventure that is greater Middle Earth.

As Bilbo Baggins says, “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no telling where you might be swept off to.”

This was definitely the case for me. I needed a push out the door, but improv has swept me off to places I’d never expect, with people I’m glad to know, and experiences I never could have planned.

At its core, finding the joy in this unplanned, unexpected, and unpredictable journey is exactly what improvisation is all about.

- By James Buscher

The Power of Play

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Do remember when you were a kid and you got to play? 

You just made stuff up and it was the best when everyone agreed to play along too. And it was the best when whatever your friends did was cool too and they felt the same about your ideas. And all of that, although as kids we were too young to recognize it, was based on agreement.

You all agreed to accept and add to whatever idea each one of you had. And it often fell apart when someone didn’t agree or had their own idea that had no room for yours.

Well, what if in life, our default attitude was to agree and accept another’s idea and then see how you could work together to make something special happen?  That the experience of adding to and fostering another’s idea was the best part of it all?  Those are the basic rules you learn in an improv class.

Yes, I accept your idea. And, here’s something to add to it. And let’s see where this goes, together. And there’s no preconceived notion of how it’s going to turn out.

I challenge you to try this out in your life. It’s really hard. Really. Freaking. Hard. And this is where the second thing you learn in an improv class comes in.

You gotta learn to listen. Really listen to what your improv partner is saying. You have to let them finish what they’re saying. You listen with an open and accepting mind.

Try this in your real life. See if you can catch yourself forming your response before they even finish their thought. Because we do that all the time. Then try listening without thinking about what you’re going to say until they’re done talking. It’s pretty cool.

Life is one big improv scene. And it’s cool to play like kids again. 

- By Scott Pargot

How Improv Saved My Creative Soul

It’s a funny story really. I went to a comedy show with my husband and some friends and heard the pitch for a summer improv class. One beer in and my friend and I decided we had to sign up. We were funny weren’t we?

That class was my first exposure to a learning environment in theater and comedy. It was filled with people from all walks of life. Some had acting experience, some were old, some were young, some were shy, some were loud, but everyone was up for a good time. With open minds and a newfound ability to really listen to those around us, we came to each class willing to “play.” For me, this concept of “play” as an adult blew my mind. Who knew adults needed creative play and could find it with a group of strangers?

Stop and think about the last time you were uninhibited (while sober) and willing to say yes to an idea.

Maybe you have kids and your toddler says:

“Be a dinosaur mom!”

And you respond with:

“Ok ok fine - ROAAAR I’m a T-Rex!”

Great! That’s play. With a kid.

But what if someone in your office came to you and said:

“I have an idea for this pitch where we walk in dressed as robots…”

And you responded with:

“Yes! And then we all speak in monotones and are synchronized as we hand out the sales charts!”

Usually when someone brings a creative, but wild idea to work it gets shut down. I’m not proposing people dress as robots to excel at sales pitches, but I am saying there is value in looking creatively at your environment and accepting what those around you are offering.

Improv came into my life during a creative dearth. It allowed me to adapt my love for public speaking into something creative and innovative. It changed the way I think about comedy and listening. While play as an adult is lost on most of our society I think we need to bring it back. Maybe a robot at your next meeting is just what you need.

- By Katie McLain