Every Wednesday night, Chet Harding and Norm Laviolette are at their comedic best on an underground stage on Hanover Street. Audience members call out an idea and the veteran Improv Asylum comedy club owners, along with a troupe of performers, spontaneously compose a hilarious scene by playing off one another’s words.
But there’s much more behind the act than quick wit and humor. The comedians are using a fundamental improvisation technique of listening to their colleague’s statement, accepting it, and adding to it.
“What we end up creating is bigger and better than any of us could do on our own,” Harding said.
For more than a decade, Harding and Laviolette have supplemented their stage business by teaching the same improvisation skills in a corporate training program. That corporate side of the Improv Asylum has boomed in recent years, serving businesses that recognize the value of employees with the skills to go off-script and think on their feet.
The program grew from just eight training sessions when it started in 1999 to 114 last year. Companies from Google Inc. to Liberty Mutual, and institutions like Harvard Business School, paid more than $500,000 for in-house sessions led by Harding and Laviolette.
The boost in business has propelled Improv Asylum, which also teaches weekly improvisation classes to more than 500 fledgling comics and business professionals, to become a multimillion-dollar company.
“It’s been wonderful to watch this place grow,” Laviolette said. “What separates us from other entertainment clubs is that we knew right from the very beginning that we were going to emphasize the business side of this organization as much as the artistic side.”
The art of improvisation, based on the “yes, and” technique, is taught as a method of communication in comedy, acting, and now business.
The technique works on stage because it builds on an idea and propels a sketch forward. Likewise in business, the skill can help creative teams make an idea better. It also helps avoid adversarial situations and fosters better relationships by eliminating responses that start with a “but” or even a “no.”
Another key aspect of improvisation is the ability to listen and understand how a message is received. If that message doesn’t get through to a client or co-worker, the technique encourages professionals to adjust in the moment and find a better way to connect with an audience.
“Improv goes beyond any other skill base to teach people how to relate to people,” said Daena Giardella, an instructor who has taught improvisation courses at MIT’s Sloan School of Management for the last seven years.
The Improv Asylum program was developed around inefficiencies the owners observed in their own corporate jobs.
Harding was Polaroid Corp.’s director of advertising and public relations in North America, and Laviolette had been a marketing associate in New York City when they opened the North End club in 1998.
“A lot of our ideas for this came from what we were experiencing in the real world,” Harding said. “The way that people moved ideas, or didn’t move ideas or didn’t communicate was counter to what companies were trying to accomplish.”
The duo modeled their business after the legendary comedy troupe The Second City in Chicago, which also has a corporate training aspect.
The Improv Asylum comedy act remains the company’s biggest revenue generator with shows six nights a week. But now Harding and Laviolette spend most of their time in the corporate training side, which developed a recent international presence with six sessions for overseas companies such as Carl Zeiss, an optical systems manufacturer in Frankfurt.
At a recent session in Salisbury, employees of Darling Consulting Group, a bank consulting firm in Newburyport, were broken up into small groups to play games that appeared lighthearted and fun, but carried more pointed messages.
A word association game, for example, showed that people often failed to pay attention to what was said immediately before their turn to speak.
Later, one participant was called on stage and an actor initially shot down everything he said, stopping the conversation. Then the actor responded with “yes, but,” essentially turning the discussion in circles. Finally, the actor responded with “yes, and,” which moved it forward.
“It promotes more productive conversations and forces you to step outside your own opinion and engage in someone else’s perspective,” said Darnell Canada, a Darling consultant.
Audiences are advised not to try to be funny, but Laviolette and Harding don’t hesitate to pepper their sessions with jokes.
“The concepts are serious, but the way in which Norm and Chet go about it by introducing comedy and having us do exercises we’ve never done before loosens us up and helps us enjoy each other’s company as we learn,” said Dennis Hammen, director of customer service at Unilever, which has hired Improv Asylum more than a half-dozen times.
Hammen said the fun factor is one reason why Improv Asylum sessions have received better feedback than any other Unilever corporate training he has taken part in during his 25-year tenure with the company.
Harding could not agree more. “We position ourselves as the anti-corporate-training corporate training, but it works,” he said.