Heard on the Hill

Why D.C. isn’t too uptight for improv

From the Capitol to K Street, staffers are saying ‘yes, and…’

Sam Schifrin and Geoff Corey, center, dive into an improv scene on Monday. Washington Improv Theater Executive Director Mark Chalfant is seen at right. (Thomas McKinless/CQ Roll Call)

Inside a bare room with concrete walls, they walk toward each other and lock eyes. “Johnny!” one shouts. “Stacy — did it happen?” the other responds.

Neither has any idea what they’re talking about, but that’s OK. This is improv, where uncertainty is a feature, not a bug.

“All you have to do is observe and respond,” Geoff Corey says later. Today he’s playing “Johnny,” but until recently, he worked on Capitol Hill, running digital media for a Democratic senator.

He’s not the only one. Sam Schifrin, aka “Stacy,” handles foreign policy and defense matters for a congressman, Democrat David Price.

Go around the semicircle at this gathering of Washington Improv Theater veterans, and you’ll get a sampling of professional D.C. in all its stereotypical glory, from the Capitol to K Street. You’d expect someone to bring up politics, but it doesn’t happen. Instead, they draw on family tensions and everyday absurdity for their raw material, inventing a meddling uncle, buckets of paint and 15 imaginary kids.

A mistake in the office could cost you your job, but a mistake in improv? That just might be the “biggest gift,” says Schifrin.

That ‘freeing feeling’

For a town known at its worst for earnest self-regard, D.C. has a fairly active comedy scene. Founded two decades ago, Washington Improv Theater puts on shows and offers classes like “Head, Heart, Gut, Groin” and “Accents and Other Funny Voices,” which promises to teach students how to use “regional accents in a more grounded and respectful way.”

Over the years the group has trained its share of off-duty politicos. One is Elizabeth Busby, deputy national press secretary for Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, who’s been taking classes for a year. For her, improv is a “fun space.” “We don’t talk about work at all,” she says. “We’re removed from what we do professionally.”

Emily Keener started practicing improv while working for Republican Rep. Mike Conaway on the House Agriculture Committee. “A lot of people on Capitol Hill always want to have control over what’s happening,” says Keener, who trained at DC Improv. “Letting go of that is the most freeing feeling.”

However freeing it may be, doing improv after-hours can still seem like a professional risk. Being mildly funny may be an asset, especially if you’re a press secretary or comms director trying to connect with the public. But “edgy” comedy, or anything volatile or unpredictable, doesn’t fit the script.

When you work behind the scenes in Congress — an institution that’s frenetic but ultimately slow-moving, where ideas are big but change is incremental — getting out ahead of your boss is pretty much the worst thing you can do. Just ask Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s chief of staff, Saikat Chakrabarti, who was recently blasted for stealing the spotlight on Twitter.

When work imitates improv

If Twitter is a minefield, then improv — with its well-known “yes, and…” principle that asks players to accept the outlandish and go with the flow — has the potential to be even riskier.

Some describe their hobby like a hilarious sweaty workout; it helps build muscles they can turn around and use on the job. While Busby’s day consists of a fair amount of writing, performing has taught her to be more “expressive” and to embrace “flexibility.” As for Corey, who worked for Sen. Bob Menendez before joining a nonprofit, it’s given him “the confidence to fail.”

Improv may not imitate work, Schifrin says, but everyone could benefit if the opposite were true. “You can get so much done if you support people,” she says. In either setting, “the quality of the product is better” when the entire team is on board.

Those comparisons get at a larger trend that’s overtaken the improv scene nationwide in recent years. On the one hand, the genre can be subversive and wickedly fun — a complete departure from the norms that keep people in line in the workplace.

On the other hand, improv has its own set of unwritten rules that can keep negativity or satire in check. And many improv troupes are racing headlong into the arms of corporate culture, offering team-building workshops for businesses. Washington Improv Theater, for example, has WIT@Work, based on the principle that the “ideas and techniques that fuel successful improv empower people to work together in exciting and productive ways.”

The group doesn’t just target C-suites. During the government shutdown earlier this year, Washington Improv Theater issued an open invitation for members of Congress to join a free bipartisan workshop. Rep. Jamie Raskin’s office initially seemed receptive to the idea, according to executive director Mark Chalfant, but “it trailed off.” Raskin’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

For the Hill staffers who moonlight in improv, promoting the genre doesn’t have to be an organized thing. Schifrin and Keener have both livened up meetings at work with improv-inspired exercises. Schifrin says her boss, Price, even joined in once and “enjoyed it.” Keener fondly remembers Conaway getting into a rousing game of “Zip Zap Zop,” which involves eye contact, hand motions and the willingness to look like a fool.

Looking like a fool isn’t something that comes easily on the Hill, where the stakes are high, spin is everything and dry cleaning is practically a religion. Maybe that’s what attracts the political types who find their way to improv class after work. “You’re doing it with other people who are as fish-out-of-water as you are,” Busby says.

Anything can go — especially your pride. (Leave that at the door.) “My favorite scenes were the ones where I messed up,” Keener says.