A proud member of San Francisco–based Bay Area TheatreSports (BATS) since 2005, Chris Sams is a highly skilled improvisational performer and training facilitator. Chris catalyzes teams to develop more innovative professionals and business leaders. He has led workshops focusing on a range of business skills, such as communication, adaptability, navigating change, creativity, leadership, presence, storytelling, collaboration, building trust, and enhancing team dynamics. Chris and I worked together for three years at BATS and had great fun playing word games and challenging each other’s memories. Chris has a special fondness for a game called Ball, which he uses at the beginning of improv training. Read on to understand how this game generates trust, cooperation, and communication among the participants.
Brent: Great to reconnect with you, Chris.
Chris: Thanks for thinking of me. I’m happy to talk with you about Ball.
Brent: It is so basic and yet, as you have said, offers a surprising range of benefits.
Chris: True, few activities in the improvisor’s handbook model as many parallels to the improvisational experience. The game gets its name from the soft squishy Koosh-like ball that the Bay Area improvisors bounce around in a volleyball circle, while together counting consecutively from one (one, two, three, etc.) each time any player makes contact with the ball.
Brent: OK, so everyone is essentially playing a gentle game of volleyball by hitting this small beach ball to another person at random in the circle. There’s no spiking or faking. The goal is to keep the ball in play as long as possible while everyone counts the number of hits together.
Chris: Correct. The process continues until the ball hits the stage floor or ground. Then the counting stops. Usually it’s my practice to have the players cheer when that happens, as play resumes back at once.
Brent: I remember this. The goal is to celebrate failure and move forward from it. It is only a dropped ball, after all. The person who fumbled can do an exaggerated “circus bow,” like a clown, and shout “woo hoo! I failed!” Everyone cheers and moves on to the next round. There’s nothing to be gained from cowering in shame, groaning, and bringing the mood of the room down.
Chris: Exactly. Ball offers up many benefits and life lessons. Embracing failure and letting go of mistakes is a big one. We don’t blame ourselves or others if the ball falls. We instead look to the future of possibility. We take ourselves less seriously. We let go of blame.
Brent: Beautifully stated. Let’s go through some of the other benefits.
Chris: It’s a strong physical warm-up for the improvisors. The players move around and get into their bodies. It’s also a strong vocal warm-up and allows the players to work their vocal projection.
Brent: Ball is deceptively simple. There really is a lot going on.
Chris: Ball promotes presence and awareness. Players must be totally in the moment, reacting and responding to their environment. There’s also a strong sense of connection. Players notice each other, pass the ball to each other, notice who hasn’t had the ball in a while, etc.
Brent: Improv, like ballroom dancing, is one of the most holistic exercises one can do. It fosters physical exercise, mental agility, and social connectedness.
Chris: Yes, there is unity and ensemble. By counting in unison, players increase their connection and support a common goal. Even if they aren’t making contact, they are part of the energy and contribution that propels the team forward.
Brent: That’s right, because everyone is participating by counting out loud, watching, listening, and anticipating. Ball is an excellent exercise to begin any workshop with. It gets people more in sync with each other. It makes them keener listeners and more likely to be supportive of others’ ideas.
Chris: Ball is about teamwork and cooperation. There isn’t a competitive spirit of us versus them; we are all a team and succeed as a team. If competitive, we are only competing with ourselves.
Brent: These are the core tenets of improv: set each other up to succeed, make your partner look good, and fail good-naturedly.
Chris: Practice and ritual also come into play. If done consistently, we improve our craft, skills, and abilities, and have a common activity to build our troupe.
Brent: Thank you so much for sharing your insights, Chris. I hope our interview gets Ball circulating more in the outside world. Improv really does make the world a better place.
Chris: I think so, too. It’s been a pleasure.
Learn more about Chris at the BATS Improv website: