Coronavirus

Improv Master Is Improvising — and Becoming a Role Model of Sorts

The Power of Positive Thinking

By George O’Brien

On one hand, Pam Victor would seem like the perfect person to turn to for advice on how to stay positive and maintain morale during this time of extreme crisis — when everyone’s life and work has been seemingly turned on its ear and nothing seems safe anymore.

After all, she started Happier Valley Comedy with a simple mission — to bring laughter, joy, and ease to Western Massachusetts (and the world), and she uses improv to help others achieve any number of goals, including one she calls the ability to “disempower failure.”

But, on the other hand … the COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically impacted, or eliminated, every revenue stream at her disposal. Indeed, Happier Valley carried out its unique mission through classes in improvisation, comedy shows staged at the playhouse she and business partner Scott Braidman built in Hadley (and other venues), and through team visits to area companies and institutions — the so-called ‘Through Laughter’ program — during which those client companies would undertake interactive exercises designed to bolster everything from confidence levels to communication. Victor would also do a lot of motivational speaking in front of audiences large and small.

You can’t do any of that in the middle of a pandemic when people have been asked, and increasingly ordered, to socially distance themselves from one another. Or so Victor thought as the crisis unfolded and escalated over the past few weeks.

“We’re on pause, as we call it — no shows, no classes — and we were in the middle of a session of nine different classes with hundreds of students — and we’ve lost or at least postponed a great deal of our professional-development programs,” she explained. “So, basically, almost every revenue stream has dried up.”

But like so many other business owners and managers in these precarious times, Victor is, well, improvising (you knew that was coming) and finding ways to not only make some kind of living, but also stay upbeat, as difficult as that is.

She gave a ‘virtual’ keynote address for the recent Nerd Summit, the partners recently conducted their first virtual stand-up show, they’re looking into ways to teach improv online, and they’re finding ways to stay connected with clients and the rest of the world through ‘happiness tips’ on Instagram and a host of other initiatives.

“We’re trying to think creatively,” Victor said in a voice that conveyed that she and Braidman have no other option if they want to survive this pandemic. And she used that virtual keynote address as an example.

“At first, I was thinking, ‘oh my God, I do an interactive talk — of course I can’t do it virtually,’” she explained. “But that was just my first fearful thought, and then I … figured it out.”

“We’re on pause, as we call it — no shows, no classes — and we were in the middle of a session of nine different classes with hundreds of students — and we’ve lost or at least postponed a great deal of our professional-development programs. So, basically, almost every revenue stream has dried up.”

Elaborating, she said she changed the subject of her planned talk and instead discussed the need to improvise in these dire and uncertain times, and how improv can help with that assignment.

“I’m very grateful that I’m an improvisor,” she told BusinessWest. “Because it has been absolutely essential to just stay afloat.”

And while improvising, Victor has thoughts on how others can try to stay positive and maintain morale in their businesses in these uncertain times. And, as with most things in business, she says it starts at the top.

“Be mindful of your tone,” she advised managers. “You could be Eeyore [the Winnie-the-Pooh character] and be the voice of gloom and doom, or you can be a role model of positivity. We’re seeing a little of both from most people because we just don’t know what’s going to happen, but it’s far more helpful to be a voice of positivity and say, ‘we’re in this together, and we’re going to get through this together.’”

Elaborating, she said that, like a Little League coach or a parent, managers should be thinking about praising employees when they can and phrasing thoughts in a positive manner.

“Instead of ‘this is the worst thing that ever happened,’ they should look for a positive, more helpful refrain, like ‘we are going to become stronger as a group,’” she said. “And this becomes a mantra: ‘if we can get through this, we can get through anything,’ and ‘now I know I can count on this team because we’re getting through this together.’”

Beyond that, she said managers, and employees at all levels, for that matter, need to accept the situation and move forward. Many, she believes, haven’t yet been able to do that.

“So many of us are still stuck in ‘I wish things were different,’ or ‘I’m just so mad that this is the situation we’re in’ or fear, like I had, that I’m not going to have a company to go back to, or I’m not going to be able to pay people,” she explained. “What improv helps us with, and what I teach a lot, is how to quiet that critic and that internal voice of fear, because it’s unhelpful, and once we have that voice quieted down, we can focus on problem solving and innovative thinking, and all that important collaborative work that we need to do.”

When asked how one quiets that voice, she said she spent an hour explaining it all during her Nerd Summit keynote. Hitting the highlights, she said the most important thing for people to remember is that this voice — she named it the ‘evil mind meanie’ — is “a big fat liar” and needs to be quieted.

“This thought that I’m having, that my company is going to go out of business … I don’t know how this story is going to end. It’s just a belief, it’s just a fear at the moment,” she explained. “For me to go down the rabbit hole and follow that fear is not helpful or productive to solving the problem of how to keep my company afloat.

“When everything went down, my first reflexive thought was ‘this is it — everything we’ve worked so hard for is lost,’” she went on, recalling those hard days as steps put in place to limit the spread of the virus robbed the company of almost all its revenue streams. “And then, you remember that this is just a belief, and you don’t know how the story is going to turn out, and my job is to be of service to my community and move forward with positivity.”

Beyond all this, Victor recommends that companies, and individuals in general, find ways to stay connected. She suggests everything from Zoom happy hours (“booze optional, everyone pours their own drink”) and Netflix parties to companies sending food or treats to employees’ homes to show appreciation, and even virtual karaoke, something she heard one company was trying.

“You have to find opportunities for fun,” she said in conclusion, “because, when we laugh together, that stimulates a relaxation response and a connection response in humans. And we need that right now — we need to feel normal, even if it’s just for half an hour.”

Victor told BusinessWest that she recently bought a bottle of champagne and put it on ice. There it will stay until the crisis is over.

Needless to say, like everyone else in this region and this country, she’s really looking forward to that day when she can pop that cork. In the meantime, she’s going to go on improvising and finding ways to laugh.

And she suggests that everyone else do the same.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

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