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The Room Where It Happens


By Kelly Leonard – Executive Director, Insights and Applied Improvisation

I belong to a very specific demographic.  One of the markers of my demographic is that I live in a swirl of fandom for the hit musical Hamilton. At home, this is one of the rare cultural phenomenons that bridge the worlds of my 13 year old daughter and my 18 year old son, who frequently break into numbers from the show at the dinner table. At work, Second City director and teacher Anthony LeBlanc recently pooled resources to reserve over 100 tickets for the show when it comes to Chicago – within minutes, every ticket was accounted for and a waiting list was started. One of Second City Works head honchos, Brynne Humphreys, will drop a Hamilton reference into almost any meeting.

I am not begrudging any of this. Lin Manuel Miranda and his creative team have crafted an ingenious score and book that is as fiercely contemporary as it is historically enlightening.

One of my favorite numbers from the show is The Room Where It Happens, a song that Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton sing that is, essentially, a lament by Burr that he is not in the center of the action. In this case, what is historically known as the “Compromise of 1790,” where Hamilton got the votes he needed from Jefferson and Madison to pass his national economic policies; in return, the capital of the United States was moved from New York City to Washington, DC – all of which was bargained out behind closed doors: i.e., the room where it happened.

Click to hear the song.

I think most of us want to be in the room where it happens. Which is ironic, because so much of our working lives is spent outside the rooms where it is happening.

We’re online; we’re on the phone; we’re at the office; we’re in Starbucks; we’re a safe distance from the action.

Here’s a tip: take the meeting. Get in front of your client. Be face to face.

A few years back, we were in the midst of a sales drought in the Theatricals department at Second City and we went to our colleague Tom Yorton who was then the head of Second City Works. We were complaining that the various clients who booked us year after year weren’t coming back and new clients weren’t lining up. “When’s the last time you flew out to meet with them?” He asked. “Kind…of…never,” was our response. “Get on a plane,” was his advice.

When you’re talking to a potential client over the phone or – even worse – through email, do you know what you’re getting? You’re getting a one dimensional conversation – you’re getting some words, maybe some inflection if you’re on the phone. What you’re not getting is body language; you’re not getting environment; you’re not getting context; and you’re certainly not getting access to all the information you would otherwise get if you’re sitting across from each other at their place of business.

This isn’t just about sales.

If you’re job requires you to invent you need to be in the room where it happens.

Second City has spent decades fine tuning its ability to co-create content with its audiences. Everyone is in the room together: actors, writers, musicians, technical staff, director and – crucially – the audience. It’s the like a real time Nielsen rating system – if they laugh, it must be funny; if they don’t, it likely isn’t.

But that’s the most surface insight that happens in the room. You learn “why” things are funny and “when” things are funny and even “how” things are funny. And since most comedy is about a revealed truth – you’re learning why, when and how things are true.

Every week you should design a way to be in the room where it happens.

Brandstage,  learning and development,  Navigate an Uncertain World in No Uncertain Terms,  talent development,  We can't innovate


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