A couple years ago I was invited to teach improvisational acting to a company of Chinese actors on China Central Television (CCTV)’s #1 hit comedy. The show’s title, translated from Mandarin, was “Thank the Heavens Above, Thank the Earth Beneath, You Have Arrived” (which also precisely summed up my feelings at the end of a fourteen hour flight from Los Angeles to Beijing). The show, based on the Australian series “Thank God, You’re Here”, was made up of comedy sketches with improv woven through each sketch. The viewership was about one and a half billion people (or as Chinese T.V. execs like to think of it – three billion eyeballs).

Before going to China, I watched a few episodes. I saw a group of very appealing young actors, all in their 20’s, held back by a lack of spontaneity and playfulness. Their improvisations felt more like a competition than a collaborative team sport. There was a lot of work to be done to connect the performers to each other and to the improv ethos that “your job is to make your partner look good.” Also, due to the show’s tight production schedule, the actors only had two days for instruction. Nevertheless, being a true believer in the power of improvisation, I said “Yes, and… ! We’ll make it work!”

So, at 9 a.m. the morning after my arrival in Beijing, sleep deprived, adrenaline fueled, I found myself, with my Mandarin translator, in a large conference hall. An audience of about a hundred CCTV actors, writers and producers were watching, waiting. For the next eight hours, I took them through the key tenets of improvisational comedy by way of a historical view of American comedy. They watched video clips — Chaplin, Keaton and the Marx Brothers… Sid Caesar, Lucy and Archie Bunker, “Ghostbusters”, “Cheers”, “Whose Line…” SNL clips featuring Tina Fey, Will Ferrell, Jimmy Fallon. The only thing my presentation could have used was “More Cow Bell!” (If you don’t get that reference – Google it!)

Throughout the presentation, I emphasized how improvisational technique informed the work of these great comedic performers: listening is crucial; communication is key; make active choices; don’t deny the reality set up by your scene partner; see mistakes as gifts; play at the top of your intelligence; and go for the agreement — Say “YES, AND… !” I also kept stressing the values of cooperation and teamwork for success in comedy, as well as in life. As my audience laughed at the clips, I explained to them how many of America’s foremost comedy actors learned the craft of teambuilding and collaboration to achieve their success.

My hope was that this day-long deep dive introduction into the improvisational process and the impact of improv on American comedy would provide a strong foundation for the theater games the CCTV actors would play the following day. I ended Day 1 with a “teaser” for the next day’s eight-hour theater games workshop. I asked for volunteers to play a very simple character relationship game – a “Who” game (invented by the Master Improvisational teacher Viola Spolin, inventor of many of the games we improvisers play). The game involves two players. Player A is seated. B comes on with a specific relationship in mind for them to play. By the way B relates to A, A must discover who B is and then play that relationship.

The first two attempts by volunteers to play the Who game went poorly. The actors who volunteered tried too hard to be funny instead of just listening and responding to each other. I was sweating bullets thinking the very last moments of the day might suck. Then in the third attempt, a very pretty young actress “waddled” into the scene, playing with total commitment, a woman who was at least TEN months pregnant. Her scene partner rose from his chair and graciously motioned for her to take his “seat on the bus.” The actress’s strong character choice and her partner’s honest response with no attempt to go for laughs, led to applause and to laughter.

The next morning, all my actors were excited to play. I started the workshop with very simple theater games: throwing around an “Imaginary Ball”; in teams of two, we played the “Mirror Game,” with one actor looking in a “space” mirror, and the other actor playing her reflection. As we moved to more advanced games, I reinforced the importance of collaborating in a scene, rather than competing for audience attention. When actors said “no, but…” to another player’s choice, I reminded them that the positive adjustment of “yes, and…” moved the scene forward. Throughout the day risks were taken, there was much laughter and numerous “aha” moments. By day’s end the actors had built a connection that all agreed was profoundly different and vastly better than their prior, more self-serving experiences performing together.

That night, I was invited to a celebratory banquet dinner with the man who’d invited me to China, Mr. Cui Yong Yuan, Executive Producer of “Thank the Heaven’s Above… .” Mr. Cui very graciously toasted me, saying that my two day program had not only transformed his actors’ understanding of comedy, but the workshop, with the emphasis on collaboration, had also reframed their perspective on how to succeed in life. I, in turn, toasted Mr. Cui on his company of talented young performers embracing improvisation so quickly and proficiently.

As we ate the seemingly endless dishes and the making of continuous toasts, Mr. Cui spoke to me about the bedrocks of Chinese culture: the two major Chinese philosophical traditions of Confucianism and Taoism. He told me how these foundational traditions, which respectively included concepts of community and creativity were being shaken by the unintended consequences of China’s “one child per family” policy. This policy, since the 1970s, resulted in young people not learning to share (no siblings!), and being seriously over-indulged by ambitious parents. Referred to as the “Little Emperors” they grew up self-involved with a winning-at-all-costs mentality. The toll on these children individually, as well as on the country as a whole, has been profoundly negative.

But Mr. Cui observed that the fundamental tenets of improvisation could serve as a powerful remedy for the Little Emperor syndrome. He envisioned his comedy performers as cultural ambassadors of the traditional Chinese values of Confucianism and Taoism. Plus, humor and comedy, he added, were a part of the Taoist philosophy of Lao Tsu. So what better way to nurture collaboration and concern for the common good than through improv? My evening ended with the lifting of our glasses in a final toast. “To collaboration and to comedy!”