Principles of improv theater apply to business and industry, keynote speaker tells Lawrence Schools Foundation
photo by: Peter Hancock
Karen Hough admits that her career has taken some improbable turns.
After graduating from Lawrence High School in 1985, she studied improvisational theater at Yale University. She later got the chance to hone her skills with Chicago’s famed Second City theater company, and was having a successful career in film, television, radio and the stage.
“So here we are, a liberal arts educated actor, and you get several years down the road and have a fantastic career, and you marry this awesome guy and move to New York, and he’s a banker so you never see him,” she said. “And so you go, ‘You know what, I’m ready for a new challenge. I think I’ll go into I.T.'”
Amazingly, Hough said, she actually got a job with a tech firm, even though she had no training, education or experience in that field. But she excelled, she said, because she always worked by the principles of improvisational acting, where the challenge is to accept any premise that’s handed to you, no matter how absurd, and use creativity to build on it and turn it into something entertaining.
photo by: Peter Hancock
She is now a best-selling author and professional speaker whose consulting firm, ImprovEdge, brings the tools and techniques of improv acting to business and industry, helping them become more creative and innovative.
Hough returned to Lawrence Friday as the keynote speaker at the annual community breakfast for the Lawrence Schools Foundation, a nonprofit organization that raises money to fund innovative teaching grants for local teachers and scholarships for Lawrence graduates.
Dena Johnston, executive director of the foundation, said about 550 people attended the breakfast, which raised $64,000 for the organization.
Hough said the transition from the tech industry into her consulting business didn’t happen overnight. But it started when she realized she was getting promotions and advancements over people who she admits were “far more experienced and probably more deserving than me.”
“But I kept thinking, there’s something going on here, something about how I’m behaving,” she said. “I’m highly collaborative. I know how to think of new ideas. I manage stuff when everything goes wrong. And those are the behaviors of improv.”
With that, Hough enrolled in the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania to conduct a research project to study how the behaviors that are fundamental to improvisational theater can be used in a business or organizational environment.
From there, she began writing books, lecturing and launching ImprovEdge, whose clients include the ESPN sports network, banking giant JPMorgan, the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, and NBC Universal, just to name a few.
Hough now lives with her husband in Ohio where, in addition to running her consulting firm, she continues to do research at the Ohio State University and the University of Massachusetts.
But she also remains a die-hard Jayhawks fan, “And if anybody ever needs a plus-one to any basketball game ever, I will fly here immediately.”