Heather Hughes

Actor and Director
Improv for Team Building Leader

How Improv Helps Teams

Improv is all about trust; trusting yourself AND the people you’re playing with. Improv asks you to hold on AND let go at the same time, which is exhilarating and scary and hilarious. But whether you’re on fire with ideas and have each other howling with laughter, OR can’t think of anything (but are likely still making each other howl with laughter), you are supporting one another and making something TOGETHER. Something brand new, in the moment, sacred to only those in the room. The benefits of playing that way as a team are infinite, and if you can do it under pretend, improvised circumstances, just imagine how flexing those creative, fearless muscles will benefit your team in the workplace! Though working remotely is far from ideal, here we are; NOT forever, but for now. As we look for ways to stay connected and creative, hopeful and excited, consider a remote team-building improv workshop…a little levity goes a long way. 🙂

- Heather Hughes

the full report

Greg Olson (00:01):

Hey everybody. Welcome to another GROWL virtual connex show. I’m Greg Olson, your host, the founder of GROWL Agency. And more importantly, I’m here with my good friend, Heather Hughes. Hi,


Heather Hughes (00:18):

How are ya?

Greg Olson (00:20):

Great. Okay. So today we’re going to be talking about everything around improv, which some people know I’m pretty, always excited to talk about that. So I might just have to put myself on mute to make sure, to give you a chance to really run the show today. But we’re going to really talking about using improv for team building for virtual team building in the world we live in now. Some of the things that you and I have been seeing and doing maybe we can, you can talk a little bit about, or tell us a little bit about a game. Maybe people that are listening, something that they’re not going to be engaging with us, but if they were listening maybe they’re listening to this podcast that we are going to have that’ll come up in the future and they won’t see us our beautiful faces. So maybe there’s a game we have. How does that sound? Okay, great. Great. So, well first, why don’t we learn a little bit about you who the heck is Heather Hughes?

Heather Hughes (01:19):

Nice question. What a complicated, well, probably not as complicated as which I’m an actor and a director. I’m also a teaching artist and do a ton of public speaking and audition coaching. So how to put that in a nutshell is that I just really love storytelling and play. And I think that there’s so much benefit to both for humans, no matter who they are and what they’re doing how we connect to each other, certainly from the dawn of time is through story and sharing. And I think that the sort of power of that is, is undeniable and can serve anyone anywhere. I currently live in Gunnison, Colorado, which is a very obvious place for an actor to live, right. I’m originally from Southern California. I went to school at Western, which was Western State College, but now it’s much fancier than that here in Gunnison and then was gone for a really long time. I lived in New York city and lived in Denver, lived in mostly major cities from the time I graduated until a few years ago when I got married and my husband in a, in a turn of strange, weird, lifeless got the job as the director of theater here at Western. And he runs the theater department now where I went to school and did my undergrad. So that’s very strange and, and kind of amazing full circle. We have a five-year-old daughter and this is a really nice place to live, especially for two people who have been freelancing and living sort of in strange ways in big cities, over the place for years and years, it’s really nice to sort of have our feet grounded somewhere, but especially somewhere like this. So now we live here and I’m doing a lot of freelance work kind of all over, and then this exciting opportunity with you and GROWL came up.

Greg Olson (03:12):

And we’re excited to be working on this, which we’ll get into. So how did you get in? So let’s talk about improv. What is improv for people that might be listening and, you know the days when we could actually go to theater, maybe some people saw an improv show, maybe they have notes. So maybe we just, maybe you can just describe like what improv is for our listeners. And then we’ll get into like how we can use it for team building and things like that. So because I think it’s, it’s, you know, I think when I’ve asked people, I get five different answers if I asked five different people. Right. And that’s okay, but I think how do you see it? And because this is what you’ve been trained in and I’ve worked side by side with you, and it’s really exciting. So what is it?

Heather Hughes (03:52):

Yeah, it’s a great question. So we do it every day, all day in our lives. We just don’t think about it. It’s how we respond to circumstances without planning is really what it is. And the art of improv performatively is the most mainstream example is whose line is it anyway, which was a really great show. That’s still in syndication. So you can find it certainly out there, but it’s an improvised show. So it’s games and activities that lead to telling a story. But as opposed to a scripted show, like series that we watch on TV or films or television programs, there is no script for improv. So it asks you to be totally in the moment, completely unattached to the process of the ending and of getting to the ending and completely unattached to an ending. So it’s making it up as you go. It is, I think one of the hardest forms of acting and performance, because you don’t know what’s going to happen, but that is also, I wrote kind of paradoxically. What’s so freeing about it because you don’t know where it’s going. Exactly. And it doesn’t have to go in a certain direction, right? We’re a very product reliance society. We like to, we like a product we like to know what’s going to happen. We like to know what we need to produce to be successful. Right. And improv says, sorry, you have to forget all of that. We’re going to redefine success. We’re going to try all different kinds of things. We’re going to make it up as we go, which is going to demand that we’re in our most present creative teamwork state, because we’re totally working together and we’re relying on each other to get there and we’re going to make mistakes. And that is not only okay, but that’s the best part some of the time. So it’s making up a story as you go. When we do it in performance, it’s in front of a live audience and there’s a really great three series special running, I think it’s on HBO or Netflix. It’s called Middleditch and Schwartz. And it’s two guys who come on stage and do a one hour improv show. If you want to check out what improv is at its finest, they are masters at it. And things go wrong constantly. And that’s the best part. Honestly, that’s the most fun to watch them figure out the formula and figure out the riddle in the moment. So that’s, that’s what it is. It’s unscripted storytelling.

Greg Olson (06:16):

And really, so that gives like really what we deal with in day-to-day life. Like you talked about. So there’s different as we’ve been working with different groups you know, we’re kind of letting the cat out of the bag a little bit with you and I, and our little magic show that we’re starting to do to help organizations across the country. And we’ve been lucky enough to do some in-person when we could, and now we’re doing virtual. You know, and again, I’m just, I get more on the, I get more of the tongue in cheek, corporate side. I, you know, why were you and I came together and, you know, I spent time in like bovine metropolis and Denver and improv shows. And again, it was the scariest thing I’ve ever done and the most, most amazing thing I’ve ever done all at the same time is to be working with people side-by-side with talent. Like you, like you have, and then how comforting can be just to be present and be okay with not being okay, which is a challenge for a lot of people. So we’re starting to see some of the things we’ve kind of coined at these spark programs until we kind of come up just to kind of saying, I think it creates a spark and a team. And you know, as we work through kind of what, we’re, what we want to keep calling this, but, you know, we’re seeing what I’ve heard from people that we’ve done this with. We’re seeing with team cohesion is a huge one because these virtual teams are hiring people. They haven’t seen each other in a long time. They don’t have company events anymore, even like holiday parties or things like that. So they have no way to get there on these zoom calls or team meetings or any of these other platforms every day. And they’re just getting worn out and tired. So we’re seeing it help with employee retention and engagement. And so I don’t, what other things are you seeing in this eight years hearing or seeing people like why people want to do these kinds of virtual improv shows or, you know, engage people like Heather Hughes and Greg Olson to help them. So what other things are you seeing before we kind of get in maybe a game that you can kind of walk us through?

Heather Hughes (08:10):

Yeah, great. I think, you know, here we all are sitting down staring at both ourselves, which is unnerving and each other. We’re not having those interactions that are so integral in the, in all, in every place, but in the workplace to sparking creativity, those little side conversations that happen in hallways, those things that sort of get us thinking new and different ways. We don’t, we can’t do that right now. We will do that again. This is all temporary. We will get back to that. But for the right now, it can, I think, feel really lonely. I think it can feel really isolating. And then to be asked to produce in the workplace in the same way that you always have been asked to and have been able to, while you’re in that vacuum feeling space. I think it’s a really big ask. And I think something that improv can do improv games. And I should probably clarify the kind of improv we’re talking about is not performative. You do not need to be an actor and there is no product in this. This is simply an hour or however long you want to, you know, you would like us to do this with you have relief of levity, of reigniting, the parts of you that are kind of a little bit hold up right now because we can’t do the things we’re used to doing and be in relationship with each other in the ways that we are used to. So I feel like there is endless benefit to laughing with each other to just laughing in general, I think is the biggest relief. I think we underestimate fun and, and what that does for a human being spirit and creativity. And I think seeing that in your coworkers and reigniting that in each other and supporting each other as you go through that, you know, these improv games that we use get these games and activities are really meant to loosen us that get us out of our head, get us out of our own way. The whole basis of improv is based on the phrase, “yes, and” yes, comma, and which means that if you come in and you say no to something, everything helps everything stops. So you don’t necessarily say the words ever “yes, and” in an improv workshop or an improv show, but it’s the spirit of yes. And yes, you said something and I’m going to go with it and we’re going to see what happens. Is it going to crash and burn maybe? And that will be hilarious, but are we going to try together to get ourselves through and forward? Yes. And I think right now in this moment, we’re in trying to be together to get ourselves through and forward. With joy, with support with laughter is not only going to help us emotionally, wherever we’re at and whatever this experience of this isolation has been for each of us, which is so different individually, but as far as working together, what a great thing to remember that your coworkers are out there, that they’re going through something as well. And here we all are to allow ourselves to give ourselves permission, to take a break from the regularly scheduled program and do something that’s not only going to remind us of our own creativity and joy, but will I guarantee, leave us feeling more creative and then that energy can be taken back to work and reapplied. I think, I think it can.

Greg Olson (11:30):

It is. And I think I like the yes, and versus like, no, but we hear that a lot in business. Like, no, but we could do this, you know also it’s a great way to meet people. We did this with our team even, and again, GROWL has 13, 14 people now. And so it was easy. We learned about the way we guided it and I’ll let you guide each of us. We learn things about each other and some us have worked together for awhile. And I think I’ve also watched you work with managers and maybe very stoic men and women that they don’t really maybe talk about certain things. We have a way at a kind of like, how do we, how do we humanize this more? Right. And I think zoom and all these virtual meetings are become so dehumanizing. I mean, you know, and things like that, like the words are you on, you’re on mute or I can’t hear you. Or, you know, after a while you get so worn out. And I think we’re really helping these teams learn about each other. We’re helping managers become better more focused. You know, so I think people are looking for ways that they can engage their teams, right? Whether it can be boards, that’s other things I really found is like, you know, boards can’t meet anymore. So how do they get together? How do executive teams, you know, have a little kickoff? And I think this is designed for that. So why can we do a game? Can you, and I try something? Is there something that you know, Randy weekend have a little fun and I can, maybe you can get my head a little bit. I’m always scared when I say that to you, but what do you think, what kind of, what kind of things can we, can we do right now to make people smile? And maybe if they’re listening, they can, they can kind of participate maybe silent.

Heather Hughes (13:04):

Yes, totally. Well, if you’re, if you are by yourself, this is just a good one to do by yourself. It’s a brain game. I do these all the time. I do it when I can’t sleep. Cause it sort of relaxes me, but I also do it if I’m stuck creatively or trying to think of an idea, simple word association in your own head, I will go through the alphabet and they might make myself start with a and name as many go A to Z. So as many piece things I would find in the produce section of the grocery store, start with A and go to Z and it is hard, and it gets you out of whatever space you’re in. And it sounds really silly. And it is. And that’s the point is that I think, especially for corporate folks, we’re often taught that who I am or being silly or laughing, those things aren’t part of the job. Those things aren’t work related. And I think that’s a really I think that’s not true. And I think we are better if we can bring a little bit of that joy and levity into our work, people respond to people, not robots, right? So if we can be human and humanized things that goes a really long way. So that’s one thing you can do by yourself. Okay. So for what we’re going to do is that this is called two person scene. This is person one, and this person two, each person only gets its three lines. We’re going to create an entire scene with three lines. So you could do this around a topic at work. If you were going to just hold my fingers here, if you were trying to solve a problem about something at work, you could be like, great. We’re going to do a two person scene. Here are the people. So let’s give us a topic. And all we’re going to say is the workplace. Person one is going to say one line person. Two is going to answer that person three, we’ll finish the scene and we will have created an entire scene with these two characters. Are you ready, Greg? I’m going to go first. Janet. I was hoping I’d run into you at the copier today. Why Greg? I think, you know, thank you. How does a dramatic scene? Sorry, Greg and Janet. Do you know what happens next? No. Do you want to? Yes you do. I think you do. You’re interested now your turn, your turn. Oh, okay. Here we go. Okay. Doing a whole new, yeah. Brand new Greg and Janet. Not about, or, or if you’re inspired Greg and Janet, you know, I like Greg and Janet. Okay, great. I really, Janet, I really wanted to talk to you about the things you left in the fridge.

Greg Olson (15:49):

Janet, I really wanted to talk to you about the things you left in the fridge.Is it the green stuff? No, it’s the purple stuff.

Heather Hughes (15:50):

You have created a cliffhanger because what is the purple stuff you have created drama. That is a whole scene right there. You could write an entire podcast or, you know, online series and you’ll be famous. Feel free Hollywood to take the Janet and Greg and characters and build on that for an upcoming movie or maybe a Hulu episode. I see it on like a full episode. Yeah. I think it’s really important. Yeah. But see what happens. So it’s just good. That’s a really simple thing. And the reason I did a really simple thing was because I’m asking, putting you on the spot, but also we get really caught up suddenly what happens to some people in these moments? It’s like, Oh my God, I’m going to do it wrong. And the thing that drew me to acting when I was a tiny kid and was terrible at sports and discovered very quickly, all the things I was terrible at, the thing that sold me on acting was that it’s decorative, which is not a word I knew then, but it’s subjective, which means anything goes, you can’t do it wrong. You can do things so that the story becomes more clear. And in scripted theater and television and film, that certainly is a director’s job to oversee that. But in improv, we want to let all the rules go and be in the moment and see what we can create when we’re not attached to an ending. And that is so different from work. Right. But I think when we flex those muscles, we trust ourselves in a different way. And then when we return to work, we can do it with a little more sense of self and a little more sense of fun, which will bring in ideas that maybe didn’t feel accessible before that.

Greg Olson (17:50):

Yeah. I like this a lot because I feel, and I, I mean, I agree with everything you’re saying, which I don’t always, but somehow, I get around to, and I have to say yes. And that just means I agree with you all the time, because I’m like, yes. And so, I’m sure your husband and you, since you’re both like excellent artists, you know, actors and artists, and I’m like, so you have to just be going yes. And until you get to an agreement,

Heather Hughes (17:54):

It’s great for a marriage, yeah.

Greg Olson (17:56):

Yeah. You can be upset, but you have to say yes and all that and yeah. But I’m right. No team building, what actually is like team building that sparks inspiration and cultural growth. So what I seen over this last kind of, it feels like eight years we’ve been dealing with, Oh, we don’t even want to say the word you and I had a code word for, it was pickle. Which totally turned into an event with a group we were working with, but it sparks inspiration and cultural growth, meaning teams are struggling or businesses can struggle with who they are as a culture because everybody’s dispersed. Right. And I even that we struggle with it with some of our dispersed teams or and when our team was dispersed for so long that, you know, we really had to work on like, who are we at? What’s that grow culture? How do we continue building it? Because it, because it was becoming just a head, like all people saw was just our head. And we had no time that we went and laughed and joked, we didn’t go to lunch together, like team members leaving for lunch or coffee or the water cooler. Yeah. So that’s the part that I think what I like is it brings it back and it gets people to know each other again, where they didn’t get a chance to be like, oh, I didn’t know. You liked rock climbing and dog walking. I didn’t even think you would like you learn about these things through these games. And you know all these things that we’re doing with teams and every one of everyone that we work with has different goals and objectives. And I think that’s, what’s fascinating to me as a see things get tighter together. And the people learn about like, oh, I didn’t know my manager, you know, like to cook or does these things, or, you know, he has a passion for public speaking or whatever they want to learn about each other. I think that’s the part that is that, how do we grow? How do we inspire and grow that culture? And I think this is the one tool I found that can help do that. Right. It’s not a lot of heavy lifting. We don’t have homework, you know, we don’t have they don’t have to, we’re not asking them to read a book of the month. We’re not asking them to do anything other than, you know, maybe take an hour. Right. I guess

Heather Hughes (19:59):

Be here now for one hour. Yeah, yeah. No prep.

Greg Olson (20:04):

Yeah. And again, that’s what I find. I mean, you put me on the spot there. I had no idea what you were going to do with your two fingers. Right. That’s the only, like I said, I didn’t, I have no idea every time we do this and you’re like, Hey, Greg, let’s do this. And I’m like, Oh no, what’s she going to do to me? Right.

Heather Hughesz (20:20):

Yeah. But then you don’t have time to worry. Right. And the thing is that we all I’m terribly guilty of it too. If I have too much time on my hands, I will create problems and terror for myself, even with this kind of thing, which is my career, right. Like I do this for a living, but scripted stuff, scripted work, which I love. And it’s so lucky when you get it. But even that there is a level of stress because when there is a product that expected, then there’s an expectation of yourself. Right. And you’re like, it has to look like this to be correct. It has to look like this. And we use the word perfect. Which is a word I would like to bomb and never hear again, because it’s not a real thing. And what does it mean? And all of that gets in the way of trial and error and all the important parts of creating. And I think that there’s something about improv. It’s what I go back to when I’m confused about a project, it’s what I go back to when I need to free myself up. It’s what I go back to when I feel myself getting too critical or getting too worried about things work or not work. There’s something about play structured play, which is what improv is, right. With a group of people that you trust and enjoy or not. Right. Because it’s a way to sort of get to that too with people. That really it’s. So it’s just incredibly beneficial. It’s like taking a really long walk outside for me in terms of clearing my head, making space for productive stuff and getting the stuff that’s not serving me out of the way. And it, and it’s just fun. If all this psychobabble doesn’t appeal to you, it’s also just fun. You will laugh a lot. And I think that the health benefit alone of that right now, man is huge. Yeah.

Greg Olson (22:08):

And we have a lot on mental health too. So we’re really driving that with content on grill. This is one of the big things. I think it’s mental health awareness. It could be week or day or month I man. So we’re really focused on that content as more so I, I completely agree with you. I think that if you care about employees, which I know people do do you are, you know, this is something that can do to just give them something that positive mental health equals positive. Everything else. If you go to growl agency, backslash mental dash health, you’ll see a whole bunch of great content. We are not a mental health company, but we care about giving people a different way to think and using improv as a way to solve problems. Right. So, and I think I’m excited to be working with you on all this and with other companies. We’ll have you on the show again, as we give updates and tips we have a kind of a website coming out that you and I are going to be on and talking about why this is important and how people can engage this type of exercises. So as we close up do you have a couple of tips that maybe you want to leave people with or something on top of your mind? Before we end?

Heather Hughes (23:24):

Yeah. I think if you’re, if you’re finding yourself for work needing to sit in front of a computer like this for multiple hours, get up, get up and move around, schedule that in like you’re going to hopefully schedule eating and you know, the other things make sure that you feel good and healthy. I, it is, you know, a lot of theater and a lot of performance or the prep for it, right? The warmup looks ridiculous, but it is, it’s so beneficial and nobody has to watch you do it. We do a great warmup. You know, we all, as humans hold a lot of tension right here in our jaw and our neck, which is why if you’re finding during this time or any time for me, it’s all the time. My stress lives right here in my shoulders and in my neck. And we want to make sure before we go out and perform that we don’t have that so that we’re not, we’re able to project it in NCA and all of that stuff for anyone though it’s beneficial to loosen up those muscles. And so we do a warmup before. This is everywhere from like community theater to Broadway theater. There’s an alphabet warmup that makes you look ridiculous, but feels really good and allows things to move. So if I were you, I would get up. I would shake your hand. I would shake your legs. And then I do a five count shakedown. So one, two, three, four, five, one, two, three, four, five, same with your legs. And then one, two, three, four, one, two, two, four, till you get down to one and you’re one shaking body. And then we do the alphabet with a giant mouth. So it looks like this, a, B, C, D E F G I, right. And you look silly, but who’s watching just me right here watching myself and you’re watching me, but nobody will see you in your house. If you can do that, rub your rub, your head, rub your chin, rub your rneck, rub your shoulders, get somebody else to do it. If there’s somebody around, it feels better when somebody else rubs your shoulders, but just loosen yourself up so that when you sit back down, you can feel movement. You can feel blood circulating in your body. That’s a huge actor thing, but it’s a huge person thing for anybody. And I think most of the things we do as actors applies to almost anybody, because they help loosen you up and get you out of your head. I would also say that if you’re feeling stuck in any way creatively and you’re by yourself and you don’t have anywhere to put it, take a break and then allow yourself to free write. Like we did when we were in fourth or fifth grade and we had to write a paper, I write down every thought you had, and I would use your hand. I would get away from your computer. I’d grab a pen or a pencil and a piece of paper. It doesn’t matter. Spelling doesn’t matter. Nothing matters what it looks like. Does it matter and spill your brain onto the paper. And then if you’re like, Oh, I revealed some things that feel very uncomfortable. You burn that in a ritual fire, and that’s fantastic. And that will feel good too. Or you’ll see like, Whoa, when I let myself not think and just pour it all out, all this great stuff appeared, and then you can bring that back. Those are things you can kind of do by yourself. I think that are, that are really helpful. Or just put on some really loud music and dance around your house for four minutes and then take a breath and get back to work, but you’ll feel better. And if you feel good, you’re going to, your work is going to be better. I like those exercises.

Greg Olson (26:44):

And I think we’ll put those, we’ll have a recording, a little short recordings of you guiding people through that. The shakedown one, I know we’ve done that with groups, both verbally and in person. I know right away, I’ve watched we get people standing up, especially those soy people who are like, you know, I got a lot of my brain, I’ve got finance, I’ve got legal, I’ve got HR issues. And then they come to our meeting and you’re right away and we get them engaged and their blood smelling. And I think that I’ve done that too. Like that shakedown thing and get talking that ABC’s before I have to get on a big call and it just gets me a brain in a separate place. It’s so weird how it happens without getting into the science of it. But it really does change your mindset from maybe like, I’m worried about this phone call. I might suck at it and I don’t want to talk to this person or I’m nervous. And if you go through those and it just changes everything about it, so great tips. Great. I think I’m excited the next time we have to bring these two characters back the little, you know, and find out what’s happening at the copy machine. What’s happening in the fridge. What’s the purple stuff. I don’t know if the purple you know,

Heather Hughes (27:51):

Tune in to find out

Greg Olson (27:52):

Maybe we have every show or we’re talking for carrying us forward bit by bit like on a flip book.

Heather Hughes (27:59):

It’s probably the name of the company will be the purple stuff. That’s probably as better

Greg Olson (28:05):

Just yet. We’ll come up with something. Yes. We’re working on that for the big unveil every month as you and I continue to work together. I have great gratitude for you. I’m glad that a lot of fun. It’s really great helping people. If anybody wants to know more, you can contact me at grail agency. And we will help you. I’m Greg Olson. This has been yes, Heather. He was, thank you. I knew your name. I was just going to got it. Wasn’t on the screen there. We went away

Heather Hughes (28:37):

There was a pause, and I didn’t know if I was supposed to say my own name. See, that’s improv.

Greg Olson (28:43):

It is. There’s no mistakes. I don’t know it’s supposed to happen. All right, everybody. Thank you for watching everyone. We’ll talk to everybody soon. Thank you.

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