Authenticity, Being Uncomfortable and Improv

If you know me, you know I have a bit of a man-crush on Joe Maddon.  The funky glasses, the tousled hair, the WINNEBAGO!!  I mean, c’mon! 

Well, his opening remarks at spring training only served to deepen my admiration for Joe. 

Two themes particularly stood out to me: "Authenticity" and "Being Uncomfortable". 

"The pertinent part of the authentic component is the fact that if you are in fact an authentic person, you're able to repeat what you've done in the past naturally,"

"I think if you remain somewhat uncomfortable, you'll continue to grow. You don't become stagnant. You don't become complacent, set in your ways. On every level, I want us to remain uncomfortable. I think that's a really positive word."

These themes screamed improv to me. 

So, I asked CSz Chicago Artistic Director, Padraic Connelly, what he thought. 

Greg Werstler:  Are you a baseball fan?

Padraic Connelly:  I grew up in Florida, a state that for many years was devoid of MLB. And even though I was never a fan of a particular major league team, we did have our beloved Daytona Cubs, who taught me to love the game for its own sake, and inspired my passion for spending a week's allowance on a single soda.

Even though we didn't have a "home team" until the Marlins showed up (and were immediately reviled by native Floridians), I collected baseball cards and followed favorite players. It was exciting to hear about superstars setting new records every year. I was also inspired by players like Ken Griffey, Jr., who would play with the Mariners against our minor league Jacksonville Suns. He was generous with his fans and his time, and often security had to intervene because he would keep signing autographs for fans near the dugout, even when the ball was in play. He showed the best of what a sports hero should be to their fans.

GW:  Have you ever heard of Joe Maddon?

PC: I live three blocks from Wrigley Field, and can see the outfield from my roof. I doubt there's a way I COULDN'T have heard about Joe Maddon.

GW:  Joe brought up the theme of “Authenticity” in his opening comments at spring training.  You run a team at ComedySportz.  How important is authenticity on your team and in the way you lead the team?  What has improv taught you about authenticity?

PC: For us as performers, it has a number of meanings.

On stage (field?) we're creating a story every night. All of our performers are friends backstage, but we have to create a world where the competition is cut-throat and we want to win at all costs. We have to fully commit ourselves to creating the feeling of authentic competition and real stakes. When we tip our hand and are seen to not really care about who wins each match, the shows are still funny, but we lose the story of evening, and the audience loses their investment in our fates. I guess you could say we strive for the appearance of authenticity, which is a bit of an oxymoron.

Offstage, though, there's no such paradox. Before matches we take the time to check in with each other. We let each other know when we're having good days or bad days. We tell our captains and our referees what we're striving for as performers. We are open in what our limitations are. When we're open and honest before the match, we're able to build a show around our strengths and avoid our weaknesses. When a performer is sick or has a minor injury, we adjust our play style to protect them while still making the whole team look amazing.

 GW: Joe also brought up the theme of “being uncomfortable”.  Improv is very uncomfortable for some people.  Beyond the fear of being onstage, what’s uncomfortable about improv?  What can someone in business learn from the uncomfortableness that improv creates?

PC:  I've been performing in Chicago for the last 15 years, and doing improv more than half my life. I STILL get nervous before every show, every time I step out to do a scene. I don't know what will happen beyond the first line I utter. And if the scene fails and the audience isn't entertained, that's all on me. An actor might be able to blame the playwright or the director (and vice versa) when a show bombs, but an improviser fulfills all three of those roles on stage. There's only one person to fault when we miss our potential.

Also, I've been in plenty of scenes where I suddenly found myself dealing with uncomfortable content and subject matter. That still happens quite a lot, where I find myself in a situation where the scene I've stepped into crosses boundaries that I am not prepared to address in a comedic context.

But through almost two decades of experience, I've learned agility as a performer. I've gained the confidence to know that even when I feel unprepared, I can always adapt if I stay open to what's possible instead of just what I want to happen. When a scene goes in an unintended direction, I now know to look for the opportunities in the new circumstances, rather than panic that things aren't progressing as expected. My favorite moments on stage are when we surprise ourselves by creating something unique and novel out of a "mistake" rather than everything going perfectly.

In business, I've found this to be true as well. As professionals, we should do everything we can to prepare for success. But we need to embrace the ideals of improvisation, and embrace the possibilities of missing our goals. All too often we're quick to look at what went wrong and assign blame, instead of looking at how to continue from a setback and learn from it. Just because a project didn't go the way we planned doesn't mean we got nothing of value from it, or we can't use an unexpected outcome to our advantage. Focus on how to get the most out of what seems to be a failure and turn it into a win next time.

 GW:  Mistakes are opportunities!  Yes!

If the Cubs win a second world series in a row, would you consider changing your name to “Joe Padraic Maddon-Connelly”?

PC:  I've already ordered the monogrammed towels.