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Teach Co-Workers Improv And They Bond Over Laughs

San Diego’s Finest City Improv markets the team-building classes to companies

San Diego's Finest City Improv aims to teach employees engagement and teamwork by asking them to perform silly improv comedy routines together.

In a dark theater on a late Wednesday morning, a group of 12 managers from the San Diego Trading Company gather for a meeting. But they aren't discussing clothing orders or store layouts — they are doing improv comedy.

"I got you a gift!" Amy Lisewski said to Lorena Rivas as she pantomimed handing her a box.

"It's the world!" Rivas exclaimed. "Thank you! I’ve been wanting one for my office. I don’t know where I’m going to put it, but I’ll find a place."

In improvisational theater, there are no scripts and all the acting is spontaneous. The genre was made popular by the TV show "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" and by a bunch of comedians — think Mike Myers, Steve Carrell, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, who got their start with the improv comedy troupe The Second City.

But in this improv workshop put on by Finest City Improv in San Diego, the performers are not only amateurs, they're attempting to do comedy in front of their co-workers.

Rivas, who manages retail operations for San Diego Trading Company, said at first she was very nervous to let loose.

"I thought it was going to be a lot of getting out of the box, getting out of the comfort zone, doing things that we’re not used to doing," she said.

But after her third session, she warmed up.

"It’s OK to make mistakes and it’s OK to screw up. But at the same time you know there’s going to be a positive. The world’s not going to end," she said.

Amy Lisewski started Finest City Improv, which is also an improv performance space. She's been leading improv training for companies for three years, and has had 25 corporate clients so far, ranging from Kaiser Permanente to Green Flash Brewing to Harrah’s Resort. They pay about $5,000 for three, two- to three-hour sessions filled with comedy games and exercises.

"If we’re doing our job well, within the first 10 minutes they feel really safe and secure, and they know that everyone’s in this together," Lisewski said.

Photo caption: Amy Lisewski leads a game at Finest City Improv, Feb. 24, 2016.

Photo by Nicholas McVicker

Amy Lisewski leads a game at Finest City Improv, Feb. 24, 2016.

In another game, she had San Diego Trading Company employees stand in a circle and do word associations. One person said the first word she thought of, "Pink," and the person next to her said what that made him think of: "Ew."

Then the whole group repeated both words and added a silly beat: "Pink, ew, da doo da doo."

Even when employees fumbled, saying "I don’t know!" and "I don’t know either!" Lisewski didn't let them off the hook.

"I don’t know, I don’t know either, da doo da doo," she had the group repeat.

While the games are for fun, they have a purpose.

"My hope for when people leave a workshop with us is that they are a little more engaged with the people they work with," Lisewski said. "I think engagement is a bit of an issue right now in workplaces. People are on their electronic devices a lot, we’re constantly communicating through email and we’re losing a little bit of the connection with each other."

She also teaches teamwork. In one game, an employee left the room and the group decided on an action the members wanted him to do: put a chair on the stage and sit on it. But they could only communicate to him through cheering or booing.

As he walked toward the chair, the group cheered. When he sat in it, they booed. He stood up and touched the chair's back and they cheered. Picked it up and they cheered wildly.

Within five minutes, he'd figured it out.

At the end of the three sessions, San Diego Trading Company’s owner Louis Addeo said it was worth the money and time.

"I wanted people to feel more engaged and be more aware and in tune to work," Addeo said.

Once they were all back at work, he said, he could already see a difference in his management team.

"We just verbally say to each other, 'We have your back,'" Addeo said. "Really thinking that the people we work with on a daily basis were all part of the same team."

But he also probably doesn’t have to worry about anyone leaving his company for a career in standup comedy. Da doo da doo.

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