Creating Psychological Safety

I’m in Wellington, NZ again. It’s a risk coming back after almost 7 years to be in a city I love with no place to live and no job. I’ve also left my trusted improv teams behind and I’m faced with the vulnerability of reaching out to old connections and new people to play with, to team up with, to take risks with…

One of my favourite testimonials from a student is ‘Clare Kerrison creates a safe place to do dangerous things in.’ (Thanks Mary). That’s not a quote about physical safety (although that is a prerequisite). That’s a quote about psychological safety and being comfortable taking emotional or creative risks in front of others.

Psychological safety is a buzz phrase at the moment partly thanks to research into what makes a great team. The article is good long read about Google’s research into how and why team culture is the most consistent cause of successful or unsuccessful teams in a business setting. Or any setting I would argue.

Improv and improvisers are naturally disposed toward creating psychologically safe spaces and teams. It’s in our core philosophies of ‘Make each other look good’ or ‘Yes, and.’ We teach listening, team support, and emotional empathy as core elements of our craft. We encourage people to use pieces of truth and that the most interesting person to see on stage is a version of themselves. We truly believe in group mind and creating a whole that is greater than the sum of parts.

Yet even we can get it spectacularly wrong. Our global communities are constantly in discussion about how and whether to best critique the work, about what the ‘rules’ of improv are, how to deal with ‘that guy’ and whether our communities are a safe place for women and people of non-dominant cultures.

I think it comes back to leadership. To the conscious creation of a “team climate characterised by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.” (Amy Edmundson) To supporting individuals to increase and practice the skills of shared communication and social sensitivity. Skills, as it turns out, we can all learn and practice in the safe space of a good improv class or team.

So here I am, Wellington! Ready to take creative risks as a member of your successful improv team (Here is an awesome review for Lyall Baywatch). Ready to move into your flat (Thanks friends!). Ready to work for your arts organisation (Thanks Young and Hungry).

And ready to make your improv class a safe place to do dangerous things in!

Basejump Improv classes.

(Photo by Ali Little: Lyndon Hood and Clare Kerrison in Lyall Baywatch)

Are you getting the improv love?

What you’re thinking about or noticing in life also pops up in improv sometimes. If I was at the Edinburgh Fringe, for example, surviving a long run with tired improvisers might be the subject of this blog. But no, for me at the moment one of the things I’ve been noticing in improv and life is love.

Or rather, being loving.

Making loving choices in life is something I haven’t always consciously done but I moved across the UK recently to be here for my gorgeously giggly Granny who hasn’t found much to giggle about for a while. It’s a real joy to actively bring more happiness to someone’s life by being present for them.

At the same time in improv, a loving approach to scene work has been presenting itself. I see it as a version of the start positive note (with a how-to do that).


I recently took an intensive class from Coleen Doyle and Jason Shotts from IO (Improv Olympic). Among other awesome concepts was a simple but very effective note that, no matter what happens or is said at the start of the scene / show, you love this person you’re on stage with (not necessarily romantic love). Treat the other character/s as if you’re happy to be there because nobody else really gets your character right now but them.

Basically, I think Colleen and Jason were teaching us to be loving. This has two main effects which are particularly useful in long form or narrative improv.

You’re good to work with

The real world effect is that you’re fun to play with and you’re less likely to block offers. When we’re playing with our favourite people we do this anyway. I love my Cambridge crew and the joy we have playing with each other is visible in every scene. So we tend to be open to each other’s offers and start with characters that understand each other. We tend to be focused on giving each other a good time rather than concerned about our own stage fears.

I can play that way with anybody if I start with the premise that I really like them: that this show is in a world where we’re getting along (despite any differences we have).

Great platform

The improv effect is to help create excellent platform. It’s much more effective in a story or sketch to start with what normal is like for these characters before introducing trouble or the reason why today of all days is special.

If you also approach the first scene looking for what your two characters have in common it’s easier to create platform. It’s also a more satisfying start because it’s easier for the audience to like you. Once the audience like you and like your character, says Jason Shotts, then you do can anything to that character because the audience will care.

And we want them to care when our characters get into trouble. That’s how story works. And we want them to care when we torture that character over and over with their weaknesses or desires. That’s the premise of much great comedy (and every single sitcom).

The long game

The idea of being loving: of starting with agreement and commonality with every character you’re on stage with reflects the advice I got from the Closer Each Day crew who have been doing their improvised soap opera in Bristol for four years. This positive common ground approach really works for the long game or narrative when you’re playing the same character all the time, even if you’re essentially the villain.

It also goes well with the idea of being a conflicted character rather than looking for conflict (I’ll explore that in a later post).

Are you giving the improv love?

So let’s turn the title around. Are you giving the love? What different improv or life choices have you made by being loving?

Can’t imagine how it works? Try it! It’s harder than you might think. And in the middle of the Edinburgh fringe run when tired grumpy minds walk on stage it can be a mighty tool…


(Photo: Heather Yeadon and Kevin Wright of Cambridge Improv Factory photographed by James Southwick at Lodestar Festival)

Should we just stop saying ‘should’?

I’ve been thinking a lot about the words should and shouldn’t.  There is quite a bit of possible should-ing in my environment at the moment.  I shouldn’t have had to move to Swindon. I should be earning an income by now. The health system should be doing more for my Granny. The UK government shouldn’t be thinking of repealing the Human Rights Act.  All very valid should-ing or shouldn’t-ing (especially that last one, government, WTF).

The trouble with should – however correct we may be – is that it’s denying or blocking what is. It’s also not very loving (which is another thing I’ve been thinking about).

On the improvisation stage we can’t afford to be should-ing or shouldn’t-ing each other or ourselves. We try to accept what is and work with that.  That’s part of the principle of yes, and. We see / listen to our partner’s offer and accept it so we can build on and respond to what’s really there rather than negate it to create the should version in our mind. After all, my should is not the same as your should (although you really should follow my should because I am right.)

Look, I’m not saying that we can’t sit round after and say what could have been done to make a better show or share a glass of wine over what might make a better family/ health system/ country/ planet. I’m just saying that dwelling in should-land is toxic. Frustrating. Powerless. Unloving.

Accepting what is can be really powerful and active.  When you really see what is and allow it to be true regardless of what should be true, you can respond with commitment in the way that works best for you and your improv scene / life.

And I don’t mean rolling over and letting the world or our scene partner dictate to us.  For example, if someone is playing a racist character on stage, I invite you not to block or ignore the racism as if it isn’t there because it shouldn’t be or succumb to thinking that accepting means your character has to like it.  You can respond angrily or happily or manipulative or loving or whatever feels right to you truthfully and comedically in that scene or sketch.

So, in the spirit of accepting what is rather than continuing to sulk about should, I aim to help the awesome Gatecrash Theatre create an improv scene here in Swindon, look for / create a different kind of income while I see to my Granny’s needs, approach the health system myself instead of waiting for it to come to us, and join Liberty UK.  Because WTF government. WTF.

Ten random improv notes that apply to life

There are some pretty good blogs out there that highlight improv principles that are good for life.  Like this one.

Which gets me to thinking – what about the everyday feedback we give as coaches and teachers?  There’s gold in there too right?  While cleaning out my papers recently, I found a bunch of scribbled instructions that I wrote in the middle of the classes where I was on vocal rest so I put this theory to the test.

Here are ten random improv instructions that could apply to life:

Face the audience

This one is pretty useful for communicating with anyone you’re speaking to or trying to further a relationship with.  Take it another level and make eye contact 🙂

Love your own ideas

Your obvious is your genius and whether it’s the same as other people’s doesn’t matter. If it is then you’ve got group mind. If not, then you’ve probably got the one point of view that saves your team project.  Either way, love the ideas that arrive in your mind naturally. You don’t have to go hunting for better, cleverer, more original ones.

In the future, remove mime shoe

If you’re going to commit violence with or to an object then save on legal bills and use mime. It can be just as satisfying and allows you to really go for it.

Where are you? Who are you?

In improv we don’t have years to answer the big questions. We make an immediate commitment to who and where we are right now.  You can be someone else and somewhere else in the next scene so it’s no big deal. And when you do discover a favourite persona that enables you to most honestly express your inner self you can turn it into your Edinburgh show.  Or just be more true to yourself in life 🙂

You don’t have to say all the things (unless that’s the game)

Unless it’s your role in a particular setting to say all the things, let other people say some things!

Try playing happy!

Research says that if we laugh and smile (with the eyes like a real smile) we send our body real chemical signals of happiness whether we mean it or not. Breathing deeply, as if relaxed, can induce relaxation. Power posing for two minutes can make you feel more confident. It’s the same principle (in my mind) as playing music for the mood you want to be in rather than the mood you are in.

Adjectives rule and so do you

This is a two parter. In the first part let’s celebrate the instinct to take time away from forwarding the action to enjoy the details: the view, smell, taste, and atmosphere right now. In improv we make it up but you can savour a real moment or even describe a real memory to someone else and enrich their day.

In the second part we’re talking about letting someone know when we find them awesome. When someone finds you awesome, let that sink in for a moment rather than arguing with them. Enjoy it!

Stick to your relationship rather than trying to make something happen

Sometimes we get bored of what we’ve already got or don’t think it’s good enough. Instead of hunting wildly for a better offer and destroying our scene, or muddling along vaguely without commitment to the scene, we can choose to go further into and deepen the game that is already there. Surprisingly rich and satisfying scenes result.

You can leave the scene

On the other hand, if the scene is over, you don’t have to wait for someone else to rescue you. You can leave of your own accord.

Great laughing!  Everyone join in!

Laughter is social. The best gift you can give a friend (or comedian on stage) is the first laugh. It gives everyone else permission to laugh out loud rather than keeping the enjoyment to themselves. Also the first person on the dance floor, gives permission to everyone else to hit the dance floor. If you’re feeling joy, express it!

There you go – ten pieces of random improv advice that I’ve somehow twisted into (sage?) life advice. What do you think?  Have you got or given a piece of improv wisdom that would be great for life?


My voiceless nightmare

Recently I lost my voice. It isn’t my worst improv nightmare but it came pretty close.

Losing the voice wasn’t the scary bit though.  It was just a random change of season virus. No biggie. I put myself on strict vocal rest. I stopped eating dairy.  I emailed everyone at the day job. I got my improv students to read out the class instructions and scribbled feedback like: ‘Awesome.’ ‘Edit now.’

It was even kind of fun for a while. My happy clown was there when I needed her. I mimed to shopkeepers, made eye contact to get attention, shrugged winsomely in response to pity.  I even got told that I’m ‘cuter’ with no voice.

Although I think there may be a feminist / status analysis required to understand all the nuances in that observation…

Clare whoa face

Anyway, the actual scary bit was not knowing when I’d get the voice back. It comes back to control over the future.  The desire for predictability. I had no control over what I could commit to. And as the voice came back slowly, I had a limit as to how much I could actually do in a day without incurring pain.  Do I cancel that beginners workshop this week?  Do I need a mic for that show next weekend?  Do I pull out of the musical improv show a month from now?

I noticed I used several ways of dealing with the lack of future predictability and these are the same as ones we use on stage as improvisers:

a) stop everything and take no risks (safety obtained!),
b) turn up and see if it works (possible humiliation and failure!)
c) call in my team to back me up (trust!)

While a) can hamper us on stage, it was sensible in many respects for recovery and I also had several great moments employing strategy b), proud that I had learned so much from improv that I could risk fulfilling a couple of jobs where I didn’t really know if it would work with no voice.

But neither strategy a) nor b) would have been possible without c).  My team. This is where your greatest strength as an improviser is on stage. It’s a team game we play and this is just as evident in life as it is on stage.

So thank you to the chap who remembered he had a portable mic and speaker in his car in time for me to perform. Thank you to the student who was so good at interpreting it was like reading my mind. To the one who ferried me to class and back to keep me from cycling in the cold. The team-mate who stepped in with jet-lag to host one night. The ladies who had no certainty I’d be able to perform with them right up until the day of our main stage gig…

All of you had my back and you all seamlessly filled the gaps.Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!


P.S. My voice is back now, so hopefully you didn’t all suddenly realise that I’m not irreplaceable… cos I’m irreplaceable, right guys? …guys?