Playing The Scene You’re In With Kelly Leonard And Anne Libera

15 Nov , 2019 podcasts

Playing The Scene You’re In With Kelly Leonard And Anne Libera

CMO Kelly-Anne | The Science Of Improvisation


As leaders we desire knowledge and control because it signals safety and certainty. What if the ability to “hold on loosely” with clear vision and values could create new solutions we never even imagined? What if our ability to be completely present to each other and our current circumstances could allow creative interactions that yielded far more powerful results? To be human is to improvise, yet this skill involves authentic response guided by practice vs. triggered reactions that can leave us without trust and connection. Co-creation and interactive play tap into what is fundamentally human within us and creates a space for incredible invention.

With all the talk of navigating an ever changing landscape, our ability to cultivate the best of our humanity is what allows a future that harnesses the best of both worlds. In this talk/ workshop/experience, Kelly and Anne will share their expertise and powerful personal journey of learning to play the scene that you’re in as work and life presents new situations that require our presence and response.

Improvisation can offer new ways of authentic relating and creating that help us foster organizations that are truly connected. Our connection, candor, and presence to every circumstance can allow us to shift paradigms and imagine new ways of creating an evolved future together.

Listen to the podcast here:

Playing The Scene You’re In With Kelly Leonard And Anne Libera

This is the full presentation of Kelly Leonard and Anne Libera’s talk titled Playing the Scene You’re In from the 2019 Coca-Cola CMO Summit.

I’m Anne Libera. I am the Director of Comedy Studies. I’m every parent’s worst nightmare. I run a college degree in comedy. I’ve also worked at The Second City for many years, a little bit longer than Kelly. During that time I have been a director, a performer and mostly a teacher. I am interested in how to help people learn improvisation and to use improvisation to create comedy but also to create all sorts of things. We were talking about that. I was working in the Box Office and I hired my friend Stephen Colbert because he was making futon frames in our basement and he needed money. I needed to hire somebody else and I hired a young man with a mullet named Kelly Leonard.

Kelly Leonard With A Mullet

I had a mullet before and I started at Second City in 1988. My first gig was as a dishwasher, which is not as glamorous as it sounds. The other person who was hired also had a mullet, Jon Favreau, the Film Director. We started in the same week. I’m going to talk a little bit about my story at Second City and Second City in general and lead to our partnership. We’re going to lead you through some exercises. I’ll talk to you a bit about our professional and our personal journey. Starting at Second City in 1988, washing dishes is not fun. The cool thing is you get to step outside and see the improv set. I don’t know if you know how Second City is structured, but we do two acts of scripted content and then a third act that is improvised where the actors are often writing the show and making it up and special guests come by.

In 1988, the cast included Bonnie Hunt, Mike Myers, Joel Murray, Bill Murray’s little brother, Jane Lynch was in the ETC. Chris Farley had just joined the touring company. He was constantly getting in trouble for breaking stuff. Tim Meadows was there. It was an incredible time. I’d slip outside and I’d watch this improv set and it completely felt like magic. It didn’t take me long to figure out that it wasn’t magic at all, that it was a practice. I’m not going to bury the lead. Improvisation is yoga for your social skills. Improvisation is noisy, loud group mindfulness. Improvisation is a practice in being unpracticed, which is how we all live our days.

If that surprises you, it might not if you knew the origins of this work, which were developed in the ‘20s and ‘30s on the Southside of Chicago at Jane Addams Hull-House by a woman named Viola Spolin, who was a social worker. Her job was to better assimilate the immigrant children coming into her care. She created these games, many of which were in gibberish or silence because the kids didn’t always share the language, but it brought them together to communicate, collaborate and empathize. Her son, Paul Sills, was studying at the University of Chicago and he loved these games, so he taught them to his friends, Mike Nichols and Elaine May among others. They formed the first improvisational theater in America in 1955 which is called The Compass Players. By 1959, that morphed into The Second City.

Fast forward a bit, 1992, I become the producer of Second City at 26 years old. I did not deserve it. I was in no way prepared. There was no one else around. It was going to be one of us. She ended up running the training center and then I took over the theater. My first cast included Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell and Amy Sedaris, all hacks. Among the first class that I hired which were all like students of Anne’s, where Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Rachel Dratch. It was a very golden era to be working at Second City. That went well for many years. In 2015, I co-wrote a book called Yes, And  for Harper Collins business which is how we take our improv principles and take them into businesses. Sometimes to do content, marketing and messaging and internal and external communication, but increasingly the pedagogy of improvisation to teach people how to listen to each other or hear each other or collaborate. As we all know, we’re terrible at all of those things, the bulk of us. We got booked around this time to go do a thing at the Aspen Ideas Festival. We’re leading a workshop and it was pretty cool. Arianna Huffington was in the audience and Senator Mark Warner. It was a cool show.

Comedy is recognition or truth plus pain plus something that gives us a little bit of objectivity. Click To Tweet

We had a moment where it’s like, “That guy’s got the same name as the building behind him.”

John Doerr. It’s going amazingly. I get a phone call and it’s from our owner, Andrew Alexander. The touring company sales were down $1,000 and he wanted to know why. I’m like, “I don’t care. Neither should you.” When I got back, we had some long conversations and I was like, “I don’t want to do this anymore.” I quit. Andrew, God love him, knows I’m hireable anywhere else. He said, “Instead of going, why don’t you take a year? We’ll give you a consultant’s fee and you can figure out a bridge in or a bridge out,” which was great. I moved into this new office that was amazing right next to his in the front of Piper’s Alley, right on Wells Street with the best office I’ve ever had. We go on vacation with our family. I have a son, Nick, and a daughter, Nora. We’re weird theater parents. We have Nick and Nora. We go on vacation in Michigan and I get a text from my assistant saying, “Your office is on fire in Second City.” I’m like, “Yes, funny.” My office was on fire.

The building was on fire.

Directly below my office. There was a grease fire at the upscale Mexican restaurant below Second City, below our offices. It shot straight up and then went down the hallway. The fireman, God love them, saved the theater. What they did, they knew what to save. This is like the Wrigley Field of Theater. We’ve been there forever. Our offices were completely destroyed. I lost everything, every little memorabilia, every note that an alum gave me. I kept so much paper, all gone. It sounds terrible. However, there is something about finding your creativity, the place of innovation, which comes from deeply uncomfortable places. You find your truth in deeply uncomfortable places. We got moved to these terrible offices. I won’t name the company. It was called Regis, where they yelled at us for laughing too much. I got scolded for being happy. I was stuck in this office with the head of our corporate division and he said, “You’re trying to figure out your thing. If you had to create something for our division, what would it be?” Going on book tour, any author tells you they don’t do this, this is lying. You always go into the local bookstore to see if your book is there. Since I wrote a business book, I was constantly looking at business books. I saw all these books on the art of negotiation and almost all of them would talk about the importance of improvisation in that movement. They’d heard the buzzword.

They didn’t go any deeper. I’m like, “This seems like a thing.” I said to Steve Johnston, “What if I found an academic and we co-created a negotiation improv workshop? Would that be something that you could sell?” “Let’s go. Great. Do it.” I took my computer and I googled academic negotiation Chicago and then I emailed the first five people that came up. Four of them immediately got back to me. This one from Loyola, I still feel bad about this because I talked about this all the time. I was ready to sign with her and she was so lovely. The fifth person about a week later got back to me. His name was Eugene Caruso and he was at the University of Chicago. He said, “I don’t know if you got contacted too late, but if you want to meet, come on up.” I’m in this Shonda Rhimes year of yes BS. I go up and he said, “I’m going to invite my wife, Heather. She might be interested. She works up here as well.” I get to their office and I am doing my wrap on improvisation and I’m talking about my ideas. Eugene is completely checked out, checking emails. Heather is locked in. She’s locked in. When I finished talking, she says, “Kelly, we’re behavioral scientists. We have decades and decades of research that shows that people make bad decisions for themselves. What you’re talking about is a practice and art form that allows people to make better decisions for themselves. Those two things have never been put together.” What did I do? I came out of this meeting. I called you.

CMO Kelly-Anne | The Science Of Improvisation

The Science Of Improvisation: Improvisation is noisy, loud group mindfulness. It is a practice in being unpracticed which is how we all live our days.


“You have to meet Heather.” This is what she said. 

We go up there the next two days later, talked for another three hours and then I leave. We’re like, “We know what we’re going to do.” Within a few months, we pitched this to Heather’s boss, who is Richard Thaler, who won the Nobel Prize in Economics, and he green lights our program called The Second Science Project, where we look at behavioral science through the lens of improvisation.

Improvisation And Behavioral Science

We use improvisation to teach and make clear the concepts of behavioral science. We’re both studying behavior and using improvisation to study behavior, but we’re also using improvisation to help people have real light bulb moments and ultimately to change their behavior using these improvisational exercises. I’m going to have you do one of these. Throughout our time together, I’m going to have you do a couple of exercises and I want to say something because I am the first person. If someone says “interactive,” I’m like, “No, thank you.” I’m going like, “I’m leaving.” You may have read this, Nick Epley who replaced Richard Taylor at the Harris School for Decision Research published a study that we don’t anticipate. We incorrectly predict that we will not enjoy talking to people. They did a study on public transportation where they made people have conversations. What they discovered is that we think we won’t enjoy talking to people and we always do. Keep that in mind as I make you do this. We’re going to do a very simple exercise. I want you to get into pairs. Sit closer, find someone who’s next to you. Two’s or three’s, ideally two’s. 

I want to say that these improvisational exercises, what part of what makes them work is they have a mechanism. They have a trick and you use that trick to create an interaction that’s different from the interaction you had before. For this exercise, this is only an exercise in listening. You’re going to have a conversation. You’re going to have a conversation about lunch, how your lunch was. As simple as that. What I want you to do, this is the key piece, your point of concentration is that before you can speak, you must use the last word that the person you’re having a conversation with said as the first word of what you’re about to say. You have to use it. You can’t jump in with something new. You have to use their last word as your first word.

It’s no more difficult than that. That’s what we do. We use a point of concentration to focus ourselves. I want to get a little bit of feedback from you. How was your conversation? Fun? It was entertaining. How is it different from some of the conversations you normally have? How many of you found that moment? Most of us, if this is the end of what they’re about to say, most of us listen to about here and then we think of what we want to say. Listening all the way to the end, how did that change the conversation from what you normally have? It deepened the engagement. You remember. More information. What else? More positive. That’s interesting. What do you think they’d be more positive here? The pauses. You’re more in the moment with each other and making a little more time. 

Every business problem is a communication problem. Click To Tweet

What’s nice about that is you know the other person is listening to you.

You’re also helping each other. You’re also finding ways. You’re already moving into an ensemble. You’re supporting each other have the conversation. That’s great. Did anybody feel uncomfortable? It’s perfectly okay if you did. It was difficult because you were trying to figure out how to work it in. Question, how many people were trying to set up their partner with the last word? That’s interesting I was trying to help you have this conversation. How many people were making a puzzle for themselves of how to use a weird word to start their thing? I often think that there’s some brain chemistry connected to those two ways of working. 

Nick Epley, he’s the scholar of the University of Chicago that we based a lot of this stuff on and he has a terrific book called Mindwise. It’s all about the different ways that we think we perceive the world. They end up being so wrong and he has a joke in the book and we don’t tell jokes at Second City. Our stuff is very behavioral, but he has a joke, which I love, in the book. A man goes up to a river bed and sees a man on the other side and he yells at them, “How do I get to the other side of the river?” The man yells back, “You are on the other side of the river.” That to me explains all of the human communication. It took a scientist who is a hunter and a vegan. That works very powerful in improvisation. Many of the beginning workshops when you start out are simply about these various focus and listening exercises because it’s drummed out of us at a certain point. When you’re a kid, it’s always about listening and things like that. That becomes every man and woman for themselves. It’s terrible. We have to slow down the communication and recognize that we’re in this together.

Have a conversation with someone else rather than having a conversation for ourselves. It’s as simple as that. How often don’t we do that? How often do you find yourself sitting in that meeting? It’s like trying to jump in a jump rope. When is my turn as opposed to being in conversation?

CMO Kelly-Anne | The Science Of Improvisation

Yes, And: How Improvisation Reverses “No, But” Thinking and Improves Creativity and Collaboration–Lessons from The Second City

We got the program geared up. Anne and two of our colleagues and various scholars from the University of Chicago met every week up in the University of Chicago. Sometimes they would bring phenomenon or evidence and say, “Do you have an exercise for this?” Sometimes we bring in an exercise and say, “Is this reflective of anything else?” Sometimes when we were creating executive education programs, we do it all because we knew we were going to have to teach.

Part of it was taking the work that we do which we know works but we know it works. We know it anecdotally. Supporting it with rigorous scientific experimenting and making sure that we can say, “Yes, this is what’s going on as opposed to what we anecdotally think is happening.”

We’re not going to take you through on this yes exercise that we created, but you guys have yes is the most popular term and improvisation. The idea there is when groups of people are making something out of nothing, you get nowhere of saying no. You don’t get very far by saying yes. You have to say yes and you have to affirm and contribute in order to explore and heighten. The immediate failure to this, he’s like, “That is the theory of behavioral economics. The default setting is people to do nothing or say no.” What’s interesting too is all these theories bubbling around the University of Chicago, apparently with the artists, the scientists and the economics professors. It’s summer. I get a call from Adam Grant, the Wharton professor who wrote the book Give and Take and Option B with Sheryl Sandberg and he’s a friend. He said, “I’ve got pals moving to Chicago. You guys should get together.” When Adam says to do that, you do because you don’t want to end up being the jerk in his next book. I set up a lunch with a woman named Ai-jen Poo. I was very busy. I did no real research. I assumed I would improvise the conversation. We both showed up early and I said, “I don’t know what Adam has told you about me.” She said, “Not very much.” I said, “Same here. Can I tell you about my day?” I had come from one of these sessions and I talked her through the work we were doing. Much like Heather, they’re very similar in terms of these warm, intelligent, fierce human beings.

Ai-jen is like, “This is so related to my work.” Ai-jen is the Co-director of a group called Caring Across    Generations. They’re trying to change the cultural conversation around aging. She’s also the Co-director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, which is in similar work. One of three women running Supermajority, Alicia Garza from Black Lives Matter, Cecile Richards from Planned Parenthood and Ai-jen. She is a badass, a MacArthur Genius grantee, activist, author. We got talking about this caregiving work and could we collaborate again, what I do is call the smartest person who I happen to be married to and I’m like, “You’ve got to meet this woman.” These conversations had not stopped. We talk to these people every week. We said, “We’ve got to work together. What are we going to do?” It happened that Ai-jen was curating the next Aspen Ideas Festival. We got to go back and we decided to talk about this improvisation for caregiver’s idea. We both led a workshop. We also did a presentation. During the workshop afterward, this woman from the Cleveland Clinic, the Las Vegas wing, was like, “We should do this. Let me get a grant.” They did. I helped co-develop this six-week curriculum all around improvisation for Caregiver.

Improvisational Exercises

Specifically, improvisation as a way of we talk about this playing the senior in when you are a family member who’s caring for somebody who has Alzheimer’s or dementia, being in the moment with them, allowing them to have agency and that these improvisational exercises help you to practice it. It’s not an obvious thing when your mom says to you, “There are monkeys outside the window.” To say, “Yes, what do they look like?” Your next thing will be like, “No, there are no monkeys there.” It’s a way to help these health caregivers practice being in that moment in a way where it’s not intuitive. As part of developing that workshop, we also talked about how to be a caregiver who is connected to the people who are giving you the person you’re caregiving, all the nurses, the doctors. How do you have conversations with these people where you are seen and known as a person and where you see them as people? One of the exercises that we worked with is an exercise that we developed in the Second Science Project but we found is useful for people who are in this situation, who are looking to be seen as a human. We’re going to do this exercise. Go back to your partner or partners and decide between the three of you who’s A and who’s B or C. 

The third person is going to be listening. I want that third person to be paying attention to the dynamics. Decide who’s A and B or who’s A, B and C. Person A, what I’m going to have you do, 30 seconds, I’m going to have you talk about what people do when they go grocery shopping. In fact, I want you to use the generic you, as in you get in the car. You’re going to talk continuously. Person B or C, you’re going to listen. Talk about what people do when they go grocery shopping and you’re going to talk for about 30 seconds or 45 seconds. Don’t talk about it yet, we’re going to have you do this again, the same amount of time but this time, I want you to talk about how you personally go grocery shopping. I don’t know about you. I go to five different stores. I want you to take a second. Person A, take fifteen seconds to think about how do you personally buy supplies or go grocery shopping. I’m giving you ten seconds to think about it and then I’m going to give another 30 to 45 seconds to talk. We’re going to talk about this as a group but we’re going to switch first.

It is often when we face our greatest challenges that we are given the gift of seeing things with clarity. Click To Tweet

Person B, I want you to describe to person A for about 30 seconds what people normally do when they get up in the morning before they go to work. What do they do from the time they get out of bed until the time they leave for work, school or wherever? You get about 30 seconds. You’re going to describe what people normally do. Use the generic you. You get up, whatever that means. This time I want you to take a second, I’ll give you about ten seconds to think about what do you do? What is your morning routine? What do you do from the time you get up? Think about it. Take about ten seconds to think about it. What do you do from the time you get up in the morning until the time you leave the house?

One of the things that’s interesting to me about this exercise is that almost always after we had that second round, people want to keep talking. You find moments of connection. I want to share this with you. Remind me, I want to tell you about this. Those of you who are person C, what did you hear the difference between the first round where they were talking generically and the second round where they were talking specifically about themselves? What was the difference? More energy when you’re talking about yourself. When you say authenticity, that’s a buzzword. We talk about authenticity all the time. What made it authentic? There’s this level of connection. The details are interesting and they’re specific. I always notice this by the way, the second part, people laugh more. 

Do you mean actual human beings? It’s vulnerable communication but authentic because it’s true. This is the thing we know about comedy. Comedy is truth. That is what you are. If you see somebody on stage like, “I would never say that about myself. That is absolutely true,” that’s what we’re always responding to.

Comedy Theory

I would say it’s recognition. My comedy theory is that comedy is recognition or truth plus pain plus something that gives us a little bit of objectivity. Lots of times, all you have to do is recognize. What’s funny to us is, “That’s real. I get that.” You’re going to say something though. Specific in family, all of a sudden, there’s a connection to this other stuff. These are fairly generic things that we’re having you do. It’s fascinating what other people do. It’s our internal monkey that’s like, “How do you get the nuts?” Anything else you noticed? It’s flawed. It includes that level of recognizable pain. It’s funny because it’s a little bit vulnerable. You’re sharing what you think is I do this weird thing and yet it’s the most interesting connection that we have with somebody is to discover that, “You’re flawed too.” That is in many ways the essence of comedy. We don’t think of sharing those things. It feels scary to share those little tiny specifics about our self. Yet when we ran this exercise as part of the Second Science Project and we did it a bunch of times to tighten it up and get some very specific results, everyone mentioned that they felt like they’d gotten to know the person in a way that they don’t get to know other people. Hearing those very specific things about them gave them this connection that they didn’t expect. 

CMO Kelly-Anne | The Science Of Improvisation

Mindwise: Why We Misunderstand What Others Think, Believe, Feel, and Want

One of the things I love about this partnership both with the University of Chicago and  Crosstrek Generations and Cleveland Clinic is that we have all these assumptions that are generically correct but there are deeper things at play. Initially, when we get the answer that looks right, that’s the one we go with. There’s a lot of evidence around that. In our work, we’ve been teaching for decades the need to be other’s focused. That shows up in Buddhism, that shows up in other leadership programs. When we start talking to the scholars and there’s deeper stuff going on there. One of the studies that we worked with was this idea around self-verification theory. This is an idea that people don’t necessarily want to be seen as their best selves or the prettiest selves. People want to be seen as they see themselves. That’s the thing we’re scratching. That is different. The only way you find this out is if you ask a lot of questions.

You have to keep going with the questions. We’re not telling the truth the first time. We’re not telling the truth the second time. We’re maybe telling the truth on the third time, eighteen, nineteen, you’re going to find something out. That is the only way. I remember, Epley came to one of your classes. This was hilarious. He’s like, “I want to observe a class.” He’s watching an exercise and it’s a gibberish exercise. It’s a classic school gibberish exercise where there was a translator in the middle who is speaking to us. The two people on the end speak foreign languages.

It’s made-up language. The person in the middle has to translate gibberish from one to the other. 

These were skilled senior students. It’s very funny. It’s very clever. It feels like we know what’s going on. Epley stopped. Before Epley could go, he goes, “Can I take it from here?” She’s like, “Sure, Nick.”

He’s a big debunker. 

He’s a huge man. He’s brilliant. He’s a vegan hunter. I don’t understand how these two things work together. He goes, he stops. He was like, “I want to ask for each of you, did you have a pretty good idea of what the other was saying?” They all three were like, “Yes. We’ve got the gist.” “I’m going to start with the first one. What were you saying?” “One, two, three.” They were completely off base. There was no one who had any agreement about anything. They assumed the way they were talking that it makes sense. This idea around self-verification theory has been very powerful for us when we talk about how we see each other in the world.

When communicating, have a conversation with someone else rather than having the conversation for ourselves. Click To Tweet

How we choose then to share ourselves as well, that is both, asking but it’s also that we noticed is that the choice to give you information that allows you to see me then prompts you to give me information about how you want to be seen.

Around this time, I got hired to deliver a keynote around this work at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. It was a faculty meeting. I was about to leave for the airport when our daughter Nora called us. She had been having all summer these pains and she was an athlete. We took her to the doctor. He thought it was a pulled muscle and we had her in rehab. She calls me and she’s like, “I can’t take it. Can you pick me up from home?” I’m like, “Yes.” I called Anne and I’m like, “I can catch my plane later.” This pulled muscle by the end of the day was stage four cancer. She had cancer in her liver and it spread to her lungs. We were thrown into this world pretty quickly. I can only imagine it’s because Anne and I had been so steeped in this work all our lives that we decided to put everything we had learned into practice during Nora’s care.

In this hospital room, you see so many medical personnel. Every single person who came in that room, if you were a CNA, if you were a nurse, if you’re a doctor, I go, “I’m Kelly. This is Anne. This is Nora. We have a Burmese mountain dog. We live in Lincoln Square in Ravenswood near Lincoln Square. The L is on the ground there. Where’d you go to school? Where do you live?” Instantly, we created these very quick bonds. We were going to talk about this and shift into this idea around this ensemble. In the parlance of improvisation, the ensemble is so hugely important. It’s the idea that all of us are better than one of us.

Sheldon Patinkin who was one of the Founders of Second City. He used to say that ensemble is only as good as its ability to compensate for its weakest member and its weakest member could be any one of us at any given time. The idea is that an ensemble has to work together to create something that is different from what they would do by themselves. There’s no place where that happens more than in the hospital in a doctor’s setting where you have these people from various teams and there’s the palliative team, the oncology team, the nurses and the CNAs. You have to find this way. Two things. One is it’s not that doctor’s choice because there’s this world of experts but it’s also not your choice that we have to create something together. We have to treat everyone as if they have something larger to offer than we could find out by ourselves.

There are other improv cops that came on to play. One was this idea about making mistakes work for you. Mistakes are inevitable. The way I put it when I give these talks all the time is that if you’re going into a performance review and you failed 70% of the time, you’re getting fired. If you’re a Major League Baseball hitter and you go into your manager’s office and you’d failed 70% of the time at the plate, you are an amazing hitter. High performance includes tons of failure. Here’s the failure that happened constantly this past year. The meds were always wrong. Do you know why? If you think about it, it changes the most hands. The doctor prescribes it, the nurse has to put it in, they’ve got to go to Walgreens, Walgreens has to go back over here. We get these sheets and so what I’ve learned pretty quickly is like, “We’re going to go over these three times and then we’d always find a mistake.”

CMO Kelly-Anne | The Science Of Improvisation

The Science Of Improvisation: Improvisers have a very difficult time improvising when they are working out a fear. Improvisation requires courage.


Most of the time it was very minor. Sometimes it was not. One time, they didn’t give Nora the right fluids and we had to rush her to the emergency room because she was bottoming out. It’s very easy to move into blame mode but when you’re working with this team that is responsible for her, the blame mode is not helpful. They figured that out about us. Do you remember that one of the early doctors? He wasn’t with us often but he happened to be there when I gave the call of like, “Something’s wrong.” He goes, “I want to tell you later.” He was talking to us. He’s like, “Normally, I would have sent that person home but it was you and I know your family.” I was like, “Get him in.” He knew me and he knew us and we got that over and over in that experience.

Kelly is an extrovert. I am what is known as extroverted introvert. I can do this, I can talk to you but in small one-on-one situations. We’d come into a new room and Kelly would be like, “What’s your name?” All the stuff that I know. There were a couple of times when it was just me. Remember from Chicago, there are three days when it was a polar vortex. Kelly got stuck in Toronto and I was there at the hospital with Nora for three days and meeting new nurses and forcing myself to say, “What’s your favorite food in Chicago? I’m going to go out and get some food. Tell me what your favorite places are around here.” Making those connections, even though it’s hard for me, had them feel they had a connection to me. It changed my relationships with them. 

Classic Improve Exercise

We’re going to do an exercise. It’s a simple exercise. It’s connected to the story. I’m going to give you a little bit of the takeaway at the beginning because I want to have this experience. You’re going to tell a story. There’s a classic improv exercise. We’re going to tell a story one word at a time. You’re going to take turns. I want you to think of yourselves as telling this story as an ensemble, which means that it’s not going to be the story that you would tell if it was all on your own. You’re going to support your partner in telling the story that you think they want to be told. That’s going to mean that sometimes you don’t have to say anything interesting.

Sometimes your next word is going to be the, because that’s the next natural word. Tell the story as an ensemble. Make a story that’s different from the story that you would tell by yourself. The title of this story is going to be the most powerful day and you’re going to start with once upon a time. Share with me a little bit. Something about that creating something with other people is meaningful. What did you discover? First of all, did your story make sense? That’s okay. How many of you had experience of wanting to say a new word or to steer the story in a new direction? That’s very human. We used to do this. If you’re parents, I used to make my children play one-word story in the car but then they’d be like, “No, that’s not the right word.” “No. Any word is right.” What was the experience like? Did anybody find yourself in that place of saying the or A? You feel like, “I’m not contributing.”

You have to say A sometimes. Sometimes that’s your job. Any other discoveries from you? How does it feel to be supported by someone else who’s trying to make you have a good story? You start to hear it. You start to make sense of each other. You start to find ways to work together. This is the magic of improvisation is that you practice that. These are practices. You’re not going to be good at it doing it one time in a workshop. The people for whom it’s transformative are the people who do it over a long period of time and start to have those practices in their muscles and in their minds. I want to say this. For a couple of years, I taught improvisation. We had a partnership. Kelly created a partnership with the Lyric Opera of Chicago. I would teach improvisation to the Ryan Center students who are the next level opera singers. They come in and have a residency. I taught them a simple game where you pass a clap around a circle. I left because I taught in the summer and then they did the season. I came back the next year. By the way, opera singers are not nice to each other. Opera is one of the meanest art forms.

It’s the mean girls of art forms.

When I was teaching them, “Is this helping your acting?” They’re like, “I don’t know but you’re the only person in this whole building who says, ‘You’re right. You’re good.’ We want that.” The head said this group has been kinder, more bonded and easier to work with than any other group that we’ve had. I noticed it when I came back and saw them again and they said, “We did that exercise before every performance.” It’s a simple one. It has to do with connection but think of this. As you said there’s so much more. It is a practice that you have to get in your body. You can have the a-ha now. There’s also that level of doing and bringing into your life over and over again.

Anne has got a great phrase that she uses which is at Second City. “We create our material in conversation with our audience.” It’s truly co-created. That’s truly how it does happen where it’s supposed to happen in the world. No one does this stuff alone. Yet at our orientation and we noticed from our scientist friends, it’s to think we are alone. When we did studies, they ran studies the two times we did the improv for caregiver six-week program in Las Vegas. The one thing that was true across is that all the caregivers felt less burdened.

They felt like they were sharing the burden.

In improvisation, we were constantly stressing this stuff. Before we came up here, we did this. I got your back. We’ve been married for 23 years. She knows I have her back but it’s right and it’s simple. That happens on the main stage every night at Second City. It happens in the touring company. It happens in the corporate workshops. It’s all equally important. Even physical touches, there’s science around that. I love this. I don’t know if you know this stat, the importance of touch and I get that that’s tricky now, but go with me on this. They did a study on one NBA basketball season. The team that they discovered had the most touches that they would touch each other on the court with the Boston Celtics. The player that touched the most people was Kevin Garnett. He got the MVP and they won the championship that year. This crosses all these mediums and all these forms.

I got booked to go speak to Cleveland Clinic again. I get there and they’re having this conference and my friend Sanjay was there with me, I believe. I get this call from Lurie Children’s Hospital. Nora needed a liver transplant. They called me and said, “We’ve got one.” I go, “I’ve got to leave.” They’re like, “Go.” I come back to Chicago and it is scheduled for midnight. Anne and I go to sleep and we’re together. We usually switch off. This is going to be a big deal. We get woken up around 12:30 because we’d fallen asleep. The transplant doctor said, “Here, I’ve got to show you this.” The liver they found had a tumor in it.

I wrote down this last part because this is something I can’t improvise. We don’t script this stuff because we know our stuff. We know our stories. We’ve been in it for so long. Nora died on August 1st. This is the first time we’ve presented since then. It was important because Kathy was on this journey with us and I wasn’t able to speak here last year and I wasn’t able to do the work at the Cleveland Clinic and they emailed me and asked me to come back and speak in the main. I’ll do that. I was sitting here and Anne is like, “You’ve got to handle this part.” I thought about it and I’m like, “I don’t want to improvise because I don’t know my stuff in the grief journey.” I wrote this and we’re going to read it to you.

Challenges And Transformation

“If there’s one thing that this has taught us, it’s that we can only discover our extraordinary selves when we come to the realization that we were always extraordinary. We just didn’t always realize it.” I have long believed in the adage that every business problem is a communication problem. If that’s even halfway true, then our work is to elevate the art of how we see each other, how we care for each other and how we co-create our narratives with wisdom, honesty and integrity. This is hard work and it’s made harder when our lives become messy. We know that improvisers have a very difficult time, improvising when they are working out a fear. Improvisation requires courage.

We also know that many improvisers suffer and that they find joy in the act and art of improvisation as it forces them to be fiercely and profoundly in the moment when their job is to only support the person on stage with them and when the ultimate goal is for the artist and audience to become one. Another thing we’ve learned this, and in particular in the days since we lost Nora, far more of you are in pain than we ever realized. Far more of you were suffering and you dare not speak it aloud. Far more of you are like we are, a bit broken and too often very sad but grateful for the life we have and grateful for the lives we’ve had. It’s often when we face our greatest challenges that we are given the gift of seeing things with clarity.

Our challenges don’t reveal the person we always were. Our challenges reveal the person we are. We may not want to play the scene we’re in but it is the only scene we really have. We must transform. I’m fairly certain that transformation has a lot to do with turning our sorrow back into love because that’s where the sorrow came from in the first place. Hermann Hesse wrote, “The call of death is a call of love. Death can be sweet if we answer it in the affirmative, if we accept it as one of the great eternal forms of life and transformation.” It seems appropriate to end as we began with a poem by David White, which is something Kathy sent me along this journey. This poem is called The Well of Grief. “Those who will not slip beneath, the still surface of the well of grief, turning down through its black water to the place we cannot breathe. We’ll never know the source from which we drink the secret water cold and clear, nor find in the darkness glimmering the small round coins thrown by those who wished for something else.” Thank you.

Important Links:

About Kelly Leonard

Kelly Leonard is the Executive Director of Insights and Applied Improvisation at The Second City and Second City Works. His book, “Yes, And: Lessons from The Second City” was released to critical acclaim in 2015 by HarperCollins and was praised by Michael Lewis in Vanity Fair who called it “…an excellent guide to the lessons that have bubbled up in Second City’s improv workshops.” Kelly is a popular speaker on the power of improvisation to transform people’s lives.

He has presented at The Aspen Ideas Festival, The Code Conference, TEDx Broadway, Chicago Ideas Festival, The Stanford Graduate School of Business, and for companies such as Coca-Cola, Microsoft, Memorial Sloan Kettering, and DDB Worldwide. Kelly co-created and co-directs a new initiative with the Center for Decision Research at the Booth School at the University of Chicago, The Second Science Project, which looks at behavioral science through the lens of improvisation.

He also hosts the podcast “Getting to Yes, And” for Second City Works and WGN radio that features interviews with thought leaders such as Simon Sinek, Adam Grant, Gretchen Rubin, Dan Pink, and Brene Brown.

For over twenty years, Kelly oversaw Second City’s live theatrical divisions where he helped generate original productions with such talent as Tina Fey, Stephen Colbert, Amy Poehler, Seth Meyers, Steve Carell, Keegan Michael Key, Amy Sedaris and others.

About Anne Libera

CMO Kelly-Anne | The Science Of ImprovisationAnne Libera is Director of Comedy Studies and the Comedy Writing and Performance BA at Columbia College Chicago, a collaboration with The Second City and the first degree of its kind in the United States.

She served as the Executive Artistic Director of The Second City Training Centers from 2001 to 2009. Directing credits include Stephen Colbert’s one man show Describing a Circle, The Madness of Curious George, Computer Chips and Salsa, and The Second City Goes to War as well as Second City touring productions all over the world.

Her book, The Second City Almanac of Improvisation, is published by Northwestern University Press. She is Director of Improv Pedagogy for the Second Science Project (Second City and UC Chicago CDR) which marries the studies of improvisation and behavioral science.

The long list of her former students who have gone on to success in improvisation and comedy includes (just to name a few): Ashley Nicole Black, Aidy Bryant, Jenny Hagel, Jordan Peele, Amy Poehler, Kristen Schaal, and Steven Yeun.

Anne has presented on topics in improvisation and comedy at the Aspen Ideas Festival, Chicago Ideas Week, TCG’s annual conference, and guest lectured at the Stanford Business School.

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