GRAND RAPIDS — For many people who work behind a desk, the thought of being funny in front of an audience is terrifying.
But the directors at The Comedy Project LLC, a Grand Rapids-based comedy theater and training center, argue the skills it takes to get on stage and improvise go hand-in-hand with what it takes to run a business and communicate with colleagues.
“Improv can help people give better presentations, whether it’s a presentation to one or two people who are clients, or a manager who needs to give a presentation to 100 people,” said Joe Anderson, artistic director at The Comedy Project. “It’s (noticing) verbal and nonverbal things that we might be doing that can compromise our message.”
The Comedy Project opened in March at 540 Leonard St. NW on Grand Rapids’ west side and hosts comedy shows weekly. The center offers training in improv, writing and comedic acting, as well as a program called RoboCorp, a workshop catered toward businesses to build on skills in public speaking, problem solving, innovation and building rapport.
The theater’s workshop facilitators have backgrounds in teaching, entrepreneurship, film, writing and organizational development, and have been trained at The Second City and Improv Olympic theaters in Chicago, among others.
The staff works with groups of all sizes, and can cater its workshops to what businesses want to focus on, Anderson said. The minimum workshop runs for two and a half hours, although Anderson recommends building continuity with a longer session or multiple workshops.
“We would meet with them and find out what the goal is and create a program that we think will reach that goal in the most efficient way,” Anderson said. “It can be a day where it’s mostly fun and humanizing everyone to each other, to really specific things like working on presentation skills or innovation for an upcoming launch.”
The value of improv
Anderson said The Comedy Project staff can tailor workshops to the skills businesses want to improve. If it’s public speaking, The Comedy Project will tackle the largest concerns for giving presentations, thinking quickly and getting the message back on track.
If it’s innovation, The Comedy Project will encourage participants to make bold choices in an environment where an individual “not only feels free to try new ideas, but an environment where others respond to those ideas as gifts to be supported and explored,” according to its website.
While improv comedy has traditionally been thought of as only beneficial to comedians or actors, theaters around the country are seeing the value in offering it to corporate clients.
“Improv shuts down part of your brain involved in self-censoring, which sounds scary, but it can train you to not second-guess yourself and contribute ideas that might help solve a problem,” Anderson said. “It’s the whole ‘yes, and’ thing. The problem with saying ‘no’ to an idea isn’t just that you don’t hear that idea, it’s that you potentially don’t hear any more ideas from that person.”
The Second City, which has trained some of the most influential comedians of the last few decades, also offers workshops and corporate trainings in improvisation. There are other theaters around the U.S. that provide training to corporate clients, but The Comedy Project is the first of its kind in Grand Rapids as a theater, bar and training center.
The team has led training locally for the likes of Amway Corp., Spectrum Health, HexArmor, and most recently the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, which brought in The Comedy Project for a workshop with Chamber members.
In the workshop, the members learned the basic functions of improv, listening and responding with “yes, and,” and improvising business pitches.
Laura Traxler, director of membership at the Grand Rapids Chamber, also takes improv classes at The Comedy Project.
“One, (The Comedy Project) speaks to the growth of our business environment, but two, if you’re looking for something to bring your colleagues together and have something they can bond over and immediately take back to their workplace, I think this is a perfect workshop for them,” she said.
The RoboCorp program aims to get people over their fears of not being funny because comedic effect is not the point of it.
“There is this belief with improv that you have to say something fast and you have to say something funny. You don’t have to do either of those things,” Anderson said. “They may be putting a lot of pressure on themselves, but everyone in the room wants them to succeed, and the best way to succeed is being yourself.
“Responding from that uniqueness is the most value-driven way to respond.”
A new venue for GR
RoboCorp is one aspect of The Comedy Project’s business. While ramping up its corporate offerings, the theater is also running multiple shows and casts alongside its training center, which has taught about 60 students thus far who vary in age from 14 to 70 years old. The Comedy Project also has held summer camps for children.
The theater recently obtained its liquor license, and now offers bar service in the lobby. The Comedy Project hosts local and national touring acts, and will participate in the upcoming LaughFest, the city-wide comedy festival that benefits Gilda’s Club.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated to clarify that The Comedy Project is the first theater, bar and training center in Grand Rapids to offer improv training.