Many of the funniest people in the United States began their show business careers in a small theater in Chicago's Old Town neighborhood known as "Second City" - Bill Murray, Dan Ackroyd, Mike Meyers and the Belushi brothers, to name a few. As VOA's Greg Flakus reports from Chicago, the famous comedy troupe has also developed highly successful programs for the supposedly "serious" world of business, where the ability to think quickly and cleverly is highly prized.
Audiences still crowd into the Second City theater every night to be entertained by the company's humorous sketches, many of which are improvised, that is, made up on the spot.
Improvisation is a skill that can be useful beyond the stage. Second City Communications, a division of the same company that operates the theater, has developed programs for business executives and office workers that foster better communication, quick thinking and innovation.
"We really believe that, in many ways, business is an act of improvisation," says Tom Yorton, president of Second City Communication. "For all the planning you do and all the governance you do as part of managing risk in business, ultimately it comes down to how well do people connect? Can they trust each other? Do they like each other? And are they willing to collaborate and work together? We can use humor to help people get into that position."
Second City workshop leaders get their corporate clients involved directly in improvisation using a variety of situations and techniques. Tom Yorton says these activities are stimulating and fun, but they always focus on building skills.
"We might do scenic material, almost presenting the problem through sketch comedy. Here is the current situation, it could be a customer service situation. It could be trouble a company is having in a merger and acquisition," explains Mr. Yorton. "We present the problem in a fun, humorous way, getting people willing to talk about the issue, because they have just laughed about it, and then, part two will be that we will workshop the solution. We will create an improv-based workshop that helps with the communication skills that can solve the problem that we have identified."
"We find that the improv-based training is a very transcendent model that works with people from Asia or Europe or South America," says Mr. Yorton. "It is very common for us to work with very mixed groups. We find, especially given all the nonverbal aspects of communication, that improv is a very natural thing for people to do, no matter where they are from."
Mr. Yorton says nonverbal activities help clients see such basic things as the value of a long pause or the message sent by positioning of the body in conversation. He says the idea is not to present actions as right or wrong, but to help people be aware of how they are perceived by others.
One of the most common problems addressed by these comedic workshops is the fear of standing in front of groups to give presentations. Tom Yorton says the Second City training has helped many people overcome their public-speaking jitters.
"The very nature of improvisation is helping people understand that most presenting quickly becomes a dialogue, as opposed to a monologue," he says. "If they do not have to feel that they are up there issuing forth, but rather that they are able to have a more informal conversation with people, that puts people at ease."
Second City Communications has now worked with hundreds of corporate clients not just in Chicago, but all over North America through affiliate centers in other cities and through traveling teams. The company offers around 300 workshops which can be used with groups as small as eight people and as large as whole company divisions involving several hundred people. No matter how big or how small the group, the participants find that the time they spend laughing is also time spent learning new skills.