“Be present in the moment," Zach Ward tells about a dozen people standing in a loose circle inside the DSI Comedy Theater.
Then he shouts "Zip," and points at a woman in the circle.
"Zap," she answers, pointing to another.
"Zop," is the answering call. And so it goes, words flying.
Next, after a few deep breaths, they take turns throwing pretend daggers at each other.
This is the way Ward, head of DSI, starts the day for students at his intensive two-week improv training workshop.
The warm-up exercises begin the process of rewiring the students' brains. The idea is to teach people to pay attention — be in the moment — and then to process information as quickly as possible.
"You can't plan ahead; you have to be able to react," Ward tells the assemblage.
Flexibility, thinking on their feet, adapting and reacting to their partners are among the lessons that Ward teaches not just to aspiring improvisational actors and standup comedians, but to professionals who want an edge in the business world.
That theater, and improv in particular, can make a company or employee more competitive is not a particularly new idea. But what may be surprising is such training has not lost favor during the recession.
Ward has taught corporate and professional classes for 10 years. The recession has not been easy, but he points out: "I'm a for-profit arts organization that has kept the doors open through three of the worst years I've seen in my lifetime."
Indeed, there appears to be enough demand to go around. Transactors Improv Co., also in Carrboro, has long offered what Greg Hohn calls applied improv classes. Hohn, Transactors' executive and artistic director, also teaches the class at the University of North Carolina's Kenan-Flagler Business School for MBA students.
Kenan-Flagler also offers improv and other nontraditional training (think NASCAR pit crew) in its nondegree executive development program.
Susan Cates, president and associate dean of executive development for Kenan-Flagler, says her program has grown substantially in the past two years in revenue and number of clients.
"When you're asking people to do more with less, you need to arm them appropriately," she says. "You need to give them the benefit of new approaches. … Pull them out of the day-to-day fighting alligators to stretch their mind."
The value of improv, say those who teach it as well as those who have taken the classes, is multilayered.
Heather Jones, executive director of Durham Cares, a nonprofit that manages volunteer services, says Ward is training her brain to think differently.
"(I find) myself listening more carefully to details," she says. "I'm an operations person. … I'm very linear. I work with a guy who is visionary. He has no boundaries. It has been helpful in that scenario. I can sit back and take in his creativity. … I'm able to let it flow."
Ward says 25 percent of the people who take DSI's classes want to be on stage. Most are doing it for personal or professional goals.
Nathania Johnson of Raleigh, N.C., has some comedic aspirations, but the freelance writer says her improv lessons are applicable to home (to avoid miscommunication she now asks her children to repeat what she has said) and work.
Writing, after all, is about listening, and freelance writers must adapt to what their client wants.
Basic improv is the idea of "yes, and …" — that's the second exercise for Ward's workshop on a recent day.
Participants sit in chairs, side by side, on stage. The rest of the class shouts out roles: bull riders, singers, dentists, super villains, button collectors.
The two on stage role-play, answering each other by repeating what was said.
Super villain No. 1: "So I finally put the finishing touches on my death ray."
Super villain No 2: (Enthusiastically) "Yes, you did finally put the finishing touches on your death ray, and I'm jealous you have a death ray!"
Kim Andrews, who works for a software company and recently took on the improv role of bull rider, says she was in a meeting recently when someone responded to an idea with "Yes, but … " Her improv training kicked in.
"I thought, 'Hmmm, you just killed the idea,' " she says. "Let's hear the idea out. Maybe the first part wasn't so good, but the second part is great. So I was able to turn it a little bit."
Andrews, who lives in Durham, N.C., just finished her second round of intensive study with Ward. (The first time was to mark something off her bucket list; this time it was for a refresher.)
On the surface, improv can seem most applicable to sales, but the skills are good for anyone whose work requires listening, she says.
"I have to listen to my client's needs and react to what my client needs, and I have to be on the same page as my partner," Andrews says.
Improv, she says, has taught her not to do mental grocery lists in meetings and to have her colleagues' back. No one-upmanship, just support.
Ward says that idea — that everyone is on the same team — is the No. 1 thing he tries to get people to remember. On stage, that support comes from listening and "reading the scene" — looking for the patterns laid out by your partner so you know what role you need to play to make the scene a success.
The same principles that work on stage can play out at the office when you're trying to work as a team to meet company goals.
That, says Hohn with Transactors, is more important than ever given the economic downturn. "When things get tight, get more competitive, companies need to find an edge. … So you need people who are flexible intellectually and emotionally; people who can adapt and think on their feet, who aren't wed to plans.
"Improv has a powerful relevance to what's going on in our world."