Surviving the Recession: An Improv Theater Follows Its Own Advice

Last Updated Sep 8, 2010 8:56 PM EDT

By Peter McDougall
For John Sweeney, owner of the Brave New Workshop Comedy Theater, making it up as you go along isn't just a philosophy, it's pretty much the best way to run a business. The Brave New Workshop is part theater, part acting school and part corporate services initiative. Each element is the result of Sweeney's attempts to keep the company afloat.
"In some ways we approach this business expecting that something will force us to reinvent ourselves every three to five years," says Sweeney. "Just like improv, we assume the 'scene' will change and so we adapt accordingly."

The motto has made for good business. The Brave New Workshop -- the longest running original sketch comedy and improvisation theater in the United States -- is one of just a handful of theaters nationwide that doesn't receive public funding or private grants. And yet it has managed to turn a profit, with revenues of $1.9 million last year.

However, it hasn't all been easy -- or even deliberate. "I wish we could say that our nimbleness was a result of insight, but it's often more a result of desperation," says Sweeney. "But we try to follow our own advice to look at every change as an exciting opportunity rather than a slap in the face. It's just another chapter in the scene."

Embrace change
The scene for the Brave New Workshop has changed plenty since Sweeney and his wife, Jenni Lilledahl, bought the theater in 1997. They spent half a million dollars relocating it to fancy new digs just down the road from its Minneapolis headquarters, only to face the one-two punch of the Internet and 9/11, which took much of the wind out their comedic sails. The former created new competition in the form of easily accessible online entertainment, while the latter made political commentary a touchy subject.

So they adapted. They moved back to their original (cheaper) location, using it as an opportunity to reinforce their brand, and started looking for new revenue streams. "We weren't going to be the husband-and-wife team that took the nation's oldest comedy theater down the tube," says Sweeney.

Inspiration came from hearing how some of their improv students found the lessons they'd learned at the Brave New Workshop's improv school, the Brave New Institute, helpful at their own workplaces. So Sweeney and Lilledahl turned to corporate outreach, helping companies to think creatively by using lessons learned from improvisational comedy. The move was a success, generating $1 million in revenue in just five years.

Then the economic downturn tightened corporate coffers, which meant that bringing "a funny man in from Wisconsin to help companies think crazy," as Sweeney puts it, was no longer in the budget. The scene changed again.

Giving corporate culture a boost
To survive, Sweeney focused on the company's core assets: a good brand and an owner who never stops talking. "In an improv scene, you need to focus on the opportunity, not the loss -- the strengths of your team, not those of the opposition," he says. "Good improv is about telling yourself, 'Things are changing -- this is awesome. I can't wait to have to change.'"

When the recession hit, Sweeney realized that he had to change his pitch. Instead of approaching corporations about how to improve the workplace, he pitched them the idea that improv skills could improve their ability to compete in a tough economic environment. Same actors, different scene, new opportunity.

The new pitch is working. Clients include Microsoft, HP, Hampton Inns and General Mills, among others, and the corporate outreach channel accounted for more than half of the company's 2009 revenues.

In one instance, Sweeney worked with two merging pharmaceutical companies whose employees were skeptical about the impending combination of their staffs. "They were asking, 'How do we have people let go of the baggage from the past?'" says Sweeney.

As he explains it, the best scenes come about when you have people with two contrasting views who are forced by the scene to come up with a third, even better point of view. "It's like having two guys -- one who hates baseball, one who loves it -- sitting next to each other at a baseball game," he says. "They have to come up with a third option or the scene fails."

That third option isn't so much a compromise as an improvement that adds onto the best elements from both sides. For the pharmaceutical staff, that translated into relearning how to listen to someone with an opposing view instead of shutting him out. It's about ditching preconceptions about what the solutions will be, and letting yourself think creatively. To a company bringing together previously competing groups of scientists, that's a useful tool.

Sweeney sees the corporate workshops, and the keynote speeches he gives, as a way to inoculate companies and individuals with some of the improv culture, rather than handing over a set of rigid instructions. "We don't tell you what you're supposed to do when change comes," says Sweeney. "We just help you develop the behavior that will let you figure it out for yourself."