Arts & Entertainment, Human Resources, and Small Business & Startups

Improv pro starts funny business

New theater offers comedy shows, training and corporate improv workshops.

November 22, 2019
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Amy Gascon RoboCorp
Amy Gascon’s RoboCorp for Business helps employees set aside their fear of embarrassment. Courtesy The Comedy Project

Amy Gascon wants to help grownups set aside their fear of embarrassment long enough to experience the link between silliness and creativity.

Gascon is a native of Grand Rapids and a 2018 graduate of the conservatory program at Second City Training Center in Chicago, whose long list of celebrity alumni include Gilda Radner, Tina Fey, Stephen Colbert and Steve Carell.

For five years, Gascon worked at Grand Valley State University’s Richard M. and Helen DeVos Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation during the week, and on weekends, she commuted to Chicago for improvisation training at Second City.

Although she didn’t consider herself an entrepreneur, Gascon said she took the part-time coordinator role at GVSU in 2014 so she could pursue her love of acting, theater and comedy on the side. Over time, the two skill sets “serendipitously” merged.

“My bosses at Grand Valley in the entrepreneurship department, they started to learn more about what I did, and improv was pretty new to them. They’d start to ask me to do team-building activities or do things that would lighten the mood up before meetings or help people put people at ease,” Gascon said. “And slowly but surely, I would get asked to do more and more workshops within the college and within our department.”

While continuing to work her day job, in March 2019, Gascon opened The Comedy Project, a theater at 540 Leonard Ave. NW, where she and a staff of four put on comedy shows and train teens and adults in improv, comedy writing and performance.

The latest component of The Comedy Project is RoboCorp for Business, wherein companies and organizations can book Gascon and her improv facilitators to come to their workplace and lead a “unique professional development experience” through “highly interactive and entertaining workshops” designed to foster public speaking and communication skills, creative thinking and problem-solving, team and rapport building, and design thinking and innovation.

Gascon and Joe Anderson, TCP artistic director, led their first RoboCorp event Nov. 18 at the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce with just under 20 participants.

Gascon said while she and her facilitators take the approach of putting people at ease at the beginning of the workshops, she hopes participants come prepared to be more open to discomfort than they might usually be.

“We’re trying to have people dip their toes into being vulnerable because we’re asking them to be a little bit silly and to say things off the top of their head, and so we really want this to be a low-stakes environment where people can feel comfortable just trying and failing,” Gascon said. “In improv, we say to ‘fail big.’ That means going after things, trying things out and not worrying so much about the outcomes as just throwing yourself into something.”

Recognizing that some workshops will consist of co-workers and others will be a hodgepodge of strangers at meetings or conferences, TCP structured the events to include a mix of icebreakers and get-to-know-you activities.

“We’re trying to get everybody on the same page and to learn a little bit about each other and to be introduced to the idea of being comfortable being silly,” Gascon said.

The workshops include exercises designed ahead of time to help teams or groups with specific objectives, such as listening or collaboration.

Gascon said the “yes, and” principle in comedy is perfect for accomplishing those objectives. You can’t say “no” to your scene partner’s idea; you have to say “yes,” honoring the idea and not dismissing it, and you have to add to it, using your imagination to keep the scene going.

After the workshops, participants are invited into a time of feedback and discussion to share their experiences.

“It’s a really cool way to start having some conversations that don’t feel so pointed or direct at people because they can kind of talk in these broad terms about little silly, lighthearted games that they’re playing today but take it back to the office later,” Gascon said.

On a practical level, Gascon said improv could be incorporated to generate and refine ideas at work.

“‘Yes, and’ is the idea that I’m agreeing to explore the possibilities of your idea, and not only that, I’m going to contribute on to your idea. I hear you, and then this is also how I think we can grow that idea,” Gascon said.

The Comedy Project offers at least three training scholarships per semester for individuals who think they could benefit from improv training — a diversity in comedy scholarship, a women in comedy scholarship and a “plain old broke” scholarship.

RoboCorp pricing is customized for each organization based on factors such as group size, length of time and travel distance. Typically, a workshop is most effective at around 90 minutes, Gascon said.

More information about The Comedy Project is available at thecomedyproject.com.

Beyond learning a list of business skills, Gascon hopes future RoboCorp participants will recapture the joy of creativity and imagination they felt as children.

“When you start out as a child, you are so proud of creativity. If I asked you to draw a picture of an elephant when you are a kid, you would probably be so proud to draw that elephant and to show me. But if I asked you as an adult to draw that same elephant, (you would) probably be embarrassed most of the time or nervous or make up excuses for why that elephant isn’t great. Somewhere along the line in our adolescence, we start to hide that creative side of us,” Gascon said.

“In these workshops, we’re trying to bring that creative side back out of people and say, ‘It’s OK. It’s OK that your elephant isn’t the most perfect specimen of an elephant. We’re just proud of you for trying.’”

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