Improv delivered to your door

Political canvassers learn improv techniques to engage with voters

By Ted Cox

If a political canvasser at your door seems as natural as an improv comic onstage, don’t be surprised. This bit of improvisation is utterly planned and completely intentional.

The Blue Beginning chapter of Indivisible Chicago is using improv comedians to help train canvassers before they hit the streets with their clipboards and candidate cards.

Lori McClain, of Chicago’s Second City, said before a “Yes You Canvass” class at the Hideout in Chicago on Wednesday that she’s “teaching some of the basic skills we use that get people engaged right away … so they can kind of make a quick connection while they’re canvassing.”

She paired off about two dozen people attending the class, and put them through exercises such as holding a conversation in which the last word one person says is the first word the other person has to say.

“Skills improvisers use are listening and not shutting down the conversation, but keeping it going by honoring and adding to what the other person is saying,” McClain said.

Other exercises included using the word “should” repeatedly, then replacing it with “could” — “‘Could’ empowers the listener,” McClain said — and listening to someone’s story and repeating it back, first in abbreviated form and then as a headline or hashtag.

These “storytelling aspects,” she said, “keep people involved in the conversation.”

Blue Beginning grew out of the nationwide Indivisible movement by recruiting Chicagoans determined to make a difference in the political system. It made its niche canvassing door to door. It will have people in the 6th Congressional District this weekend and next.

“The thing that really matters is knocking on doors and talking to voters,” said Marj Halperin, one of the organizers of the group. “It’s the thing that changes minds. It’s what gets our supporters out so they don’t forget to vote.”


“The thing that really matters is knocking on doors and talking to voters. It’s the thing that changes minds.”

Marj Halperin of Blue Beginning (One Illinois/Zachary Sigelko)

Mike Lenehan, another Blue Beginning organizer, emphasized how easy and natural it is once someone actually gets out there ringing doorbells and communicating with fellow voters. McClain’s improv basics simply give canvassers a few devices to fall back on to grease the wheels of conversation at the door.

McClain has worked at Second City for about 20 years, teaching improv classes, including sessions specifically aimed at people in the business community through the Second City Works division. The Chicago improv troupe has increasingly worked with Chicago’s business community in recent years.

She jumped at the chance to dive into the political arena, saying, “I thought it would be great to get involved this way.”

At the same time, Halperin didn’t forget to emphasize the true basics of going door to door, telling her canvassers: “Absolutely smile first.”