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The Cathedral of Ensemble


By Shad Kunkle – Facilitator

Everybody loves a super hero team-up!  Whether it’s superheroes in movies like Guardians of the Galaxy, athletes forming an Olympic Dream Team, or engineers working together to send a Land Rover to Mars, great teams and their formation are the subject of many of long-debates and passionate conversations.

Second City is very familiar with great team ups and star-studded ensembles.  Casts such as Take Me Out to the Balkans 1993 featured Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert, and Amy Sedaris; The Gods Must Be Lazy 1989 starred Chris Farley, Tim Meadows, and Bob Odenkirk; and Paradigm Lost 1997 had an all-star line-up with Tina Fey, Rachel Dratch, and Scott Adsit….and as we always say…the list goes on and on!  So how is it that so many talented people, with so many unique personalities, and completely different comedic point of views have been able to work together so successfully for so many years?

Try to love every idea a little bit and for a little while.

As a performer and facilitator at Second City who works with companies and organizations to build great teams, I’d love to share a few keys that I think contribute to that success.  The first thing we have to do when building a team is make sure you use all of its parts.   Second City has always prided itself in having ensembles that make you focus on the overall show and cast rather than the individual performance of the players.

  • Anybody who is familiar with improv is familiar with the philosophy of Yes, And.  If you are familiar, then you’re probably a little tired of hearing it so I will make the definition brief – try to love every idea a little bit and for a little while.  This doesn’t mean you have to agree to it and it doesn’t even mean you have to change your opinion of an idea.  It just means you’re not going to reject an idea before you have heard it.

People tend to take rejection personally.  Even if you are saying no to an idea or information, the person delivering the information feels rejected.  A rejected person tends to contribute less which means one of the pieces on your team is operating less efficiently.  Before rejecting an idea, ask yourself what is the human need behind why this person suggested something.  Could there be another way to support that human need without rejecting the idea?

Second City shows are built through shared contributions of the players.  We say “bring a brick not a cathedral.”  For us, the cathedral represents a comedic scene.  People bring comedic ideas in and we improvise those ideas in front of audiences and we keep what works.  Now everybody in the cast has shared ownership of that idea and people don’t take the rejection personally if it gets cut from the show during development.  Depending on the focus of your team-whether it be sports, entertainment, or business – the cathedral represents what you define as success.  How efficiently your team builds its cathedral brick by brick in an ever-changing landscape can define the greatness of your ensemble.

  • Great teams are built on trust.  If you don’t trust the people on your team, you spend more time focusing on their responsibilities than your own which makes YOU the piece of the team operating less efficiently.   So what is Trust?  When I think of the people I trust most in the world I think of my parents, Tom and Jeri.  Yes, those are their real names.  They were always there for me, and I’m not in jail so they must have been OK at being parents.  But the number one reason that I trust them is that they are always looking out for me even before themselves.

In improvisation, we use the term “Got your back” a lot.  We say it to each other before going onstage and we even pat each other on the back to remind us.  It’s our reminder to stay “others focused” on stage.  When people focus on supporting others rather than being slaves to their own agenda and need for accomplishment, they establish trust in the players around them.  Trust leads to ensemble efficiency.

  • Lastly, when playing on a team, ask yourself, “Are we having fun yet!?!”  If the answer is no, try aiming for a clear goal that is reasonably within reach and also requires maximum effort from each member of the team.  The common goal will unite the group and work will become a lot more exciting.

Building great teams isn’t rocket science, but when great teams fall apart you can usually trace it back to the individual agenda of each of its parts.  Did all of the pieces of your team have purpose?  Were they supported?  Were the pieces of your team compatible and did they trust each other?  Finally, were the goals of the team realistic yet challenging and dare I say fun to pursue?  It’s addictive to watch great teams at work because everyone wants to be part of something larger than themselves.  So, to each and all, bring a brick, build a cathedral, and have fun storming the castle!

fear of failure,  learning and development,  Navigate an Uncertain World in No Uncertain Terms


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