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Making a Fool of Myself – Pekarsky Stein Mid-march 2015 Newsletter

March 16, 2015

Dear Friends and Colleagues,



My dear friend Lyndsey Dangerfield warned me in advance of my first day at Pekarsky Stein that near the beginning of my tenure I would be asked (or “voluntold”, as Adam later put it) to write the firm’s mid-month newsletter.

Although Lyndsey has famously referred to this rookie tradition as “hazing”, I was excited about the whole thing! And it wasn’t just my natural Jack Russell terrier-like eagerness that led to my excitement. Writing this blog post gives me an excuse, er… opportunity, to introduce something to our readership about which I am passionate to the core: improv.

Yep. Making up silly things in front of an audience is one of my life’s passions. In fact, every Friday, I spend my night on stage as a cast member of Rapid Fire Theatre.

I can say without hesitation or exaggeration that improv has changed my life, and not just because I have always had a not-so-secret dream of leaving Edmonton behind in favour of Studio 8H at 30 Rock. Improv has changed my life because taking the stage with no script and no plan is full of practical applications that have changed the way I look at myself and the world. And as I embark upon my new adventure in search, I can’t help but bring some lessons from improv along with me.

If you think I’m crazy, rest assured that the beyond-the-stage benefits of improv training have been noted by others with much more credibility than I. A recent New York Times article highlights how improv training is helping academics and scientists better explain their research, and in some cases, more successfully secure research funding.

So come along with me, dear readers, as I scratch the surface of what I’ve learned through the incredible world of make-em-ups!

Trust What’s Already in Your Head

In improv, even though you’re making it all up as you go, you’re not doing it without a strong base of knowledge. Indeed, each time you take the stage you’re armed with a lifetime of experiences: knowledge gleaned from school and work, memories of childhood arguments, relationships of all kinds, plot points from when you were obsessed with the X-Files in the mid-nineties… All of those are at your disposal at any time.

With practice you learn to pull from that body of material quickly, and to trust that the first thing you that comes out is the right thing. In other words, you learn to listen to your inner voice, and in time that voice gets louder and louder.

For me, this has proven invaluable in my life outside of improv. It has made me more assertive and confident in my decisions; in improv, indecision isn’t an option (because the result of indecision is a bore-fest), and so in life I have become less waffly. It has also helped me see the value in every choice and experience.

When I announced that I was pursuing a career in search, some people asked me if I was anxious about my decision to leave the practice of law behind after so many years of training and working. Decidedly, I was not; my inner voice was loud and clear. While I no longer practice law, it has shaped who I am, and that will always be valuable. It’s cheesy, but it’s true: everything you’ve done in your life has brought you to this moment. Don’t underestimate the power in that.

Improv Collage

Communicate Concisely and Meaningfully

At its base, improv is storytelling. Whether it’s a 4-minute laugh-fest, or a 60-minute improvised musical (yep, that exists), the actors on stage are trying to build a compelling and meaningful story. This requires some serious communication skills.

As an improvisor, your actions and words must show the audience what the scene is about, but they also need to be jam-packed with little nuggets that give hints to your scene partner about what’s going on in your head. For example, let’s say you start a scene by miming that you’re stirring something in a pot. Your scene partner enters. You could say something like:

 “Hmmm… I think this needs some salt. Here, you try it.

But that line really doesn’t tell your audience or your scene partner much. The better choice is to make every word pack a punch by saying something like:

Trisha sweetie, hand mom the salt. This tomato sauce is bland!

This communicates so much more: who the other character is in relation to you, her name, and what’s in the pot. Why spend precious stage time hashing out a bunch of basic information (and also likely adding superfluous filler), when you can spend that time on more exciting elements of the story?

Improv has taught me that communicating in a way that quickly and meaningfully gets to the heartbeat of the thing you are discussing makes any task more effective because it leaves more room for the important stuff.  It has also made me a better listener and more able to fully absorb verbal and non-verbal cues. This lesson certainly served me well as a lawyer, and this continues in my early days as a Pekarsky Steiner as I begin working with clients and candidates. Understanding the people and organizations you work for and with is absolutely essential for success in any work, and this is especially true in search where our job is to make the right connections between organizations and candidates. As set out in an article in Forbes magazine, improv training “isn’t cleverness training or joke training. It’s really about the infrastructure of communicating and connecting”.  Just like search.

 Embrace the Principle of “Yes, And”

“Yes, and” is the building block of improv. It  represents an improvisor’s two-fold job, which is to (1) say “yes” to the offers made by the other improvisors on stage; and (2) add something of value to those offers to further the scene and the story.

The “yes” is not necessarily a literal “yes”. It means that you acknowledge that in the world you are creating, what the other improvisor just said is true.  The “and” is essential. If you “yes” without the “and”, you’re making your partner do all the work.

The constant volleying of “yes, ands” between improvisors means that an improvised scene is never what you think it will be when the lights first come up.  As an improvisor, you must be expertly adaptable and willing to let go of your ego plan if your scene partner makes an offer takes you in a new direction. But the cool thing is this: a scene built lovingly with “yes, ands” is always way more satisfying, exciting and imaginative than anything one improviser could have thought up alone.

For me the lesson in “yes, and” is that teamwork is at its best when the members of the team share responsibility and accountability for the task. By effectively working together, the result of teamwork is so much greater than the sum of its parts. At Pekarsky Stein, I see this exemplified in the strong relationships the firm has built with its clients, building mutual trust, and ultimately resulting in the best outcome possible. It makes me thrilled to know I have joined such a strong team.

 While You’re at it, Embrace Failure

I’m going to be straight with you:  in improv, it is 100% guaranteed that at some point you will completely bomb on stage. And when you do, the audience is still there – quitting is not an option. Given this inevitability, you have to learn to mine your failure for all its worth.

This means learning to see failure as an opportunity, not a mistake. For example, once in the middle of a scene, I confidently called an improvisor by his actual name instead of his character’s name. Oops. But, instead of getting in my head about it, I turned that “mistake” into a “choice” by doing it again, and then a third time. This became a fun game in the scene where my character, a wacky king, was constantly calling members of his court by the name he liked best instead of their actual names. The audience loved it, and we had a blast playing it.

Learning to gracefully live through failure also means you grow to be more resilient. You were brave enough to put yourself out there, and you crashed and burned, you survived! And you still have a lot to give.

In search, I know these lessons will serve me well. Pekarsky Stein has built its reputation on going the extra mile to achieve the perfect candidate-organization match. This high quality approach means that we have to be willing to get some nos, rethink our strategy, and be open to constructive criticism at any time. I happily take on that challenge, and I know I’ll be better for it.

Take Big Risks

In his commencement speech to the 2013 graduating class of the University of Michigan, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo relayed  to the graduates some simple words of wisdom that were shared with him as a young man: “What are you afraid of? Make bigger choices! Take courageous risks!”. Dick Costolo heard these words at an improv class. Before he was a tech giant, Dick Costolo was a cast member of the legendary improv and sketch company, The Second City (performing alongside the likes Steve Carrell).

My choice to pursue search after years as a lawyer was definitely a risk, just like it can be a risk for any of our candidates considering an exciting opportunity, or for our clients to welcome a new member to their team. But where you listen to your gut, and the risk is right, it is so important to be courageous and take that leap.

I recently hosted a show during Rapid Fire Theatre’s annual Junior High tournament. One night, a team of fresh-faced teens asked the audience to name any object to inspire their scene, and received the suggestion of “cheeseburger”.

The boring choice would have been to play a scene where someone is eating a cheeseburger. But that is not what happened. Instead, I’ll be darned if one of those brave souls didn’t start the scene by playing an anthropomorphized cheeseburger living through a Camus-esque existential crisis and suffering paralyzing self-doubt because he was so greasy that no one wanted to eat him. The scene was absolutely genius. The audience members were entranced and that team got the biggest cheers of the night.

If those young improvisors would have chosen the obvious/easy route, the resulting scene probably would have been good. But the audience would have forgotten about it ten minutes later. By making the riskier choice, those improvisors not only surprised themselves, but created a situation so unexpected and creative that the whole room couldn’t help but be affected.

The lesson in this one is simple: never shy away from risks. Taking risks allows us to tap into unknown skills, creativity and richness that result in an outcome beyond what we could have imagined. And, it is often by making the riskier choice that we wind up leaving a lasting impression.

And so, I will finish my first-ever Pekarsky Stein newsletter article with these words of wisdom: don’t be afraid to be an anthropomorphized cheeseburger.


Christine DeWitt is an Associate in the Edmonton office of Pekarsky Stein.   She is a cast member of the Edmonton institution Rapid Fire Theatre, where you can find her every Friday night performing with many of the city’s funniest and most talented improvisors and comedians.  Christine’s personal, professional and civic accomplishments were recognized when she was named as one of Edmonton’s Top 40 Under 40 by Avenue Magazine in October, 2014.

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