All I Ever Needed to Know I Learned from Improv

This essay was originally written as a lay-sermon for the Unitarian Universalist Church of Oak Cliff, and appeared in my “Sunday Brunch” column in the now-defunct e-zine ALL THINGS GIRL. It ran in January, 2010.

Photo by Vadim Fomenok on UnsplashA decade ago, I hadn’t done a lot improv. I mean, I’d done some in school, and had done some street theatre as an adult, but if you’d asked me about my future, spending several years in a professional improvisational comedy troupe would not have come up. But then, neither would have being a regular member of an audio improv show, a cast member of several audio dramas, or the narrator of an audio book.

Even so, sometime in 2003, I found myself being dragged by my friend Jeremy to the improv bootcamp being led by a mutual friend of ours, Clay. Initially, I was nervous – I hadn’t really played any theatre games since high school, and the skills that I had were beyond rusty. Nevertheless, after an intense day of both physical and verbal warm-ups, tableaux drills and basic scene-play, I was hooked.

Four years later, again at the urging of my friend Clay, I auditioned for ComedySportz on a lark because I wanted to make some friends who had nothing to do with the mortgage industry. I left the audition thinking I’d be asked if I still wanted to sign up for the class I’d initially queried them about, but the next day I was invited to join the troupe, and all too soon, I was performing every weekend, and then staying out until the wee hours of the morning talking about the show we’d just done, or about improv in general.

I had also become so much more confident in myself that I dyed my hair pink, fled corporate America for a freelance writing career, and started seeking out new opportunities to stretch myself – things like speaking in my local church, writing actual scripts for favorite audio dramas, and committing to a more active role here at ATG.

More than once in the intervening years, I’ve found myself talking improv with fellow performers, either after a show, or during a pause in a recording session – discussing how we bring improvisational techniques into our off-stage lives. Also more than once, I’ve found myself trying to explain to non-improvisers what it is I love about the art form, and more, how the concepts I’d learned from improvisational theatre can be applied to every aspect of life.

In no particular order, here are some examples:

Don’t Perform; Play.

Like many other art forms, improv is make-believe for adults, and it works best when you stop worrying about entertaining other people, and just play.

When you play, you’re less self-conscious, and more in the moment. You think faster, listen better, and are generally more responsive. It’s not about the performance, it’s about the experience. In life, we make deeper connections when we stop worrying about impressions, and just let ourselves be in the moment.

Support Your Partner.

In improvisation, we’re taught that not only is there no “I” in “team,” but that the job of each player is to make everyone else look good.

At ComedySportz, before each show, we would literally pat each other on the back, and say, “I’ve got your back,” to lend assurance that no matter what happened, no one was going out there alone. In life, we also have to support each other.

We have one world, one community, one extended family. If we don’t stick up for each other, who will?

Claim Your Mistakes.

We’re often told we learn from our mistakes, and that learning how to fail is just as important as learning to succeed. New improvisers are taught to take deep bows even when they utterly failed in a scene, not to celebrate the failure, but to celebrate the fact that they tried. Accepting that we all make mistakes helps us handle setbacks more gracefully.

Improv also reminds us that as long as we respond truthfully – with honest emotion – there are no wrong answers. True, there are high percentage and lower percentage choices, but even the “bad” choices can still lead us in new directions. Remember the words of Thomas Edison, who, when trying to develop a working light bulb, reportedly said, “I haven’t failed; I’ve found 10,000 ways that don’t work.”

Pay Attention.

How many times in your life has a parent or teacher admonished you to “Pay attention!” How many times has a child implored you to “Listen to me!”

In improv, if you aren’t paying attention to your partners, you miss vital information. After all, improv is often all about endowment, and if you don’t hear someone introducing you as their husband/sister/next door neighbor/English teacher/whatever, you won’t know how best to add to the scene in progress.

In life, lack of attention means anything from hurt feelings to actual injuries (How many of us have been behind a driver not using turn signals? How many of us have forgotten to signal turns?)

Be Specific.

In improvisation, in writing, and in life, specifics matter.

Specifics are the difference between, “I wish I had some help with editing,” and “Becca, would you mind proofreading something for me?” They’re the difference between, “I’m in a bad mood,” and “I’m angry at you because you forgot to take the garbage out. Again.” It’s the difference between two people talking on an empty stage and two people at a bar, or in the park, or in the kitchen, even if the lines don’t change, and the set pieces exist only in the imagination.

Yes, And…

There’s an improv mantra, of sorts, that goes, “You can’t deny another person’s reality; you can only build on it.” The shorthand version of this – as well as being the central tenet of improvisation in general – is “agree and add,” or, in the more popular vernacular, “Yes, and.”

On stage, this means that you take whatever another improviser has given you, and expand it. It is building momentum, instead of allowing inertia.

“Here I’ve brought you a mug of coffee,” someone might say.

“Yes, and now my brain will kick into gear and I can solve the energy crises,” their scene partner might answer.

When you say “Yes, and” you’re validating what another person has said, and adding something new. In its broadest sense, “Yes, and” is saying yes to everything life throws at you – good or bad – and then adding to it. It is accepting the reality of any given situation, and then being willing to take the next step.

This doesn’t mean that finding a way to respond “Yes, and” to every situation requires you to be happy and perky.

“Honey, I crashed the car into a tree,” your spouse or partner could inform you, one evening.

“Yes, and now that I know you’re okay, I’ll find the insurance agent’s number,” you might respond if you’re incredibly calm, but it would be an equally valid response if you said, “Yes, and it’s a good thing you didn’t die in the process, because now I can kill you myself!”

Even in a less-than-positive situation, “Yes, and” continues the conversation.

Every time we try something new, face a fear, engage in conversation with a stranger, we’re really saying “Yes, and,” to the universe. Whether you’re sharing a personal essay, publishing a poem you worked on for hours, or giving your treasured short story or novel to the readers of the world, you are doing it, too.

“I’ve created this thing,” you are saying.

“Yes, and, we are going to experience it,” your audience replies.

If you’re lucky they’ll build further on that, with a comment, a review, a recommendation, or even just passing on a link or giving their copy of your work to a friend.

If I’d never done improv, I’d probably still have left the mortgage industry, but I probably wouldn’t have auditioned for audio dramas or agreed to speak in a church, or tutored a friend’s son in English (I’m not terribly child-friendly) or any number of other things I’ve done since my “conversion” from muggle to improviser.

I’ve internalized a lot of the improv principles I’ve shared today, but I still have to make a conscious effort to replace “No, because,” or “Yes, but,” with “Yes, and,” when I’m feeling grumpy or snarky or shy.

“All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players,” Shakespeare wrote in As You Like It.



The play of life? It’s unscripted.

Kill It With Fire

0169 - Kill It with Fire via Flash Prompt“Take this” she told the mission commander. “We offer it to you in remembrance of this visit.”

I tried to warn him. Tried to tell him that accepting living fire from an alien we hadn’t fully vetted was a bad idea. But did he listen?


Caught up in the thrill of an (apparently) successful first contact scenario, he accepted their gift, brought it back aboard our ship, entrusted its care to me.

At first, I thought the fluctuations in the power grid were a result of the ion storm we’d passed through. Then I realized that the living fire was also fluctuating.

I took a couple of specialists down to the engine core, and that’s where we found them. An entire pod of the same chalk-white aliens.

Reynolds and Morris never knew what hit them. One minute they were flanking me, weapons drawn; the next they were dead, and the chalk people were sucking on their bones.

Me, they kept alive.

I’m not sure if it was because I’m a woman or because they’d never seen rainbow-colored hair before. Maybe both. But they made me their liaison.

Please if you get this message, do not let my ship approach your world. The chalk people use living fire as their portal. It’s how they conquer other races, how they spread their seed into the cosmos.

Our weapons have been destroyed. Our crew – what’s left of it – is being fattened for an Arrival Feast.

I beg you. Destroy our ship. Destroy it in orbit. Make sure it’s blasted to bits and then consign the debris into the sun.

Kill it.

Kill it with fire.

Capturing the Catbird

0185 - Catbird - via Flash Prompt“Professor Shadingstone, I presume?”

The older woman raised her gray-haired head from her laptop and peered at the younger. “Good god, Lumley, must you use that tiresome greeting every day? It was mildly amusing once. Now, seventeen days from semester break, it’s lost the little charm it once had.” The professor paused, letting the other absorb her annoyance. “Now that you’ve interrupted my work, you might as well tell me why.”

Lumley stepped closer to the desk. “I was out in the Green Woods over the weekend. It started as a hike. Nuñez, the TA who works for Professor Clardin, invited me on a picnic and a hike. Only, he’s quite handsome, and we’re both applying for the Gossey Fellowship. And –

“Have I not asked you not to ma’am me?”

“- sorry, sir – “

“Lumley.” Professor Shadingstone never yelled when she was angry. Rather, her voice became quiet, dark, and full of warning. “Get. To. The. Point.”

Lumley handed over a photo-cube. “I’ve found it, ma – er – sir – er – Professor. I’ve found proof. The Caprican Catbird. It exists.”

The professor activated the photo cube and watched as digital images sprang up before her in holographic glory.

“This is a stray housecat, Lumley. Probably the one Dean Ferrington lost last fall.”

But Lumley held her ground. “No, Professor, it is not. It’s a Catbird. Watch.”

Shadingstone flipped through the collection of photos, her gnarled fingers flicking out as if she were catching flies. “Photoshopped,” she accused.

“I didn’t. I swear.”

“Tangible evidence?”

Lumley handed over a clump of black animal fur, something rather like a peacock’s tail feather, and a data flimsy with a lab report.

“The DNA in fur and feather is identical, si – ma – Professor.”

Shadingstone read the report once, then a second time. “Could you find the location again?”

“I set a beacon drone after it. One of the new dragonflies.”

“Which means the entire biology department will be swarming the Woods.”

“Never that. The beacon is set to your private channel. And it’s password protected.”

Shadingstone set the cube aside, letting the photos continue to cycle, tracking the newfound creature’s metamorphosis from black cat to peacock and back again. Centering her computer on the desk, she instructed it to locate the drone Lumley had indicated and receive video data.

“What’s the password, Lumley?”

The younger woman hung her head. “Only, I wanted it to be memorable, so it’s kind of silly.”


“It’s… ‘tomfowlery,’ Professor.”

“Tom… fowlery?”

Lumley’s reply was somewhat sheepish. “I’m afraid so.”

Shadingstone stared at the eager young woman, the biologist in training, and did something no student, and few faculty, members had ever witnessed.

She threw her head back.

And laughed.

Daedalus, Diminished

0189 - Icarus via Flash-Prompt


He’d been a maker, once.

Architect. Designer. Engineer. Dreamer. He’d done it all.

Create a labyrinth suitable for the great beast enslaved by the king?

Sure, no problem. Make it twist and turn, winding back around itself until even he, the one who planned it, couldn’t guarantee a speedy exit.

Or any exit.

Build an animatronic bull that would fool a goddess?

Yeah, he could make that happen. Use real skin, paint the hooves so they’re not too glossy, capture the musky scent of rutting animal and spray it underneath the taut hide. She couldn’t help but fall for it. Good thing she was into the strong, silent type, even when mating in bovine form.

Find a way to fly?

(To fly, to flit, to flee.)

Wax and feathers on a wire frame. Powered by your own muscle, guided by your own mind. Biceps and triceps needed to be strong, but don’t overlook your core.

It’s all about the core.

And his son’s core was soft.

Not the physical one.

The part that governed common sense.

The part that listened to his father’s wisdom.

The part that followed the old man’s instructions.

Those parts, those core strengths, those were the bits that had been black and mushy. Neither capable of maintaining balance nor strong enough to persevere.

Well, his son was free now.

Free from earthly constraints, free from human laws, free from the need for blood or breath or bone.

And himself?

He’s trapped in a labyrinth that has no exit, because it exists entirely within his mind. His minotaur isn’t a raging half-man, but a monster made of grief and guilt. It chases him down nightmare lanes, night after night, always ending in the heat of fire, the hiss of saltwater, the bitter tang of loss.

He was a maker once.


But now?

Now he’s just an old man with nothing left to live for, wandering the deserted beach of his own, sorry, soul.

One Play More

28 Plays Later – Challenge #28
We started with a “Brave Little Soldier” so let’s end with a “Coward Big Pacifist”.

Bonus points to anyone who knows how many bonus points they have
and incorporate that in the play.

(Note: Mine is an extremely loose interpretation)


One Day More from Les Miserables via Playbill





So, this nightmare challenge… I have zero ideas. I mean, I have vivid dreams, but I’m not willing to share them with a bunch of strangers. And even if I was, I know how to write them in narrative form, but as a play? The things I envision I don’t even know how to stage without a ton of technology.


Well the brief did say we had an unlimited budget.


But an unlimited budget can’t make the impossible possible, can it? Anyway, I’m too stupid for this challenge. Is day three too soon to quit.




If I ask you the same question on day twenty-three will you have the same answer?




To read the entire play, click the link below:

2018-28 – ONE PLAY MORE

Up In Smoke

28 Plays Later – Challenge #27

Pick a previous challenge and do it again.

I picked #5 – the provided first line challenge. Except it ended up not being the first line.

So, this is also the “adapt a previous work of your own” challenge, since this was originally a piece of flash-fiction.



Copyright: <a href=''>baldion / 123RF Stock Photo</a>




SAUL (gesturing at the item):

Is that it?


What, this? It’s just a lipstick, see?

GERTL makes a show of opening the tube of lipstick and applying some to her lips, using the compact mirror for guidance.


Do you like the color?


It’s a little dark for a girl like you.

GERTL (laughing):

Right, because I’m still twelve to you.


No! Not twelve. Sixteen, maybe.


Got a thing for jailbait, Saul? I never would’ve thought…

SAUL (embarrassed):

Easy, sweet-knees, I’m just playing with ya. (beat) Shall we get to business?

SAUL pulls a cigar out of his pocket, and reaches for paraphernalia waiting on the table. He clips it, lights it, and takes a puff.


To read the entire play, click the link below:

2018-27 – Up In Smoke

Be Seated

28 Plays Later – Challenge #26
Choose ten inanimate objects, go through a five-step process that helps you select one.
Write a play about it.


Ice Cream Parlor Chairs




WHITE:          Fine. You go first.

BLACK:          Well…

WHITE:          Come on. Don’t get your wires in a twist. You want my confessional, put your money where your support spiral is.

BLACK:          Well, like you, I started in the restaurant. When was that? The thirties? The forties? I don’t remember much except a lot of red sauce and soldiers.

WHITE:          Yeah… soldiers and their girls. It was sweet, all that young love.

BLACK:          If you say so. A lot of those boys never came home again, or they came home wrong.

WHITE:          True. But a lot of them got married and started families. I ended up with one of the daughters of the restaurant owner. I thought you did, too?

BLACK:          Yes. I was put on the landing next to an empty milk bottle – one of those big, black, metal ones. I was never sure if he was meant to be intimidating or reassuring. Mostly, he was boring. Never wanted to chat. Just wanted to sit there and be stoic.


To read the entire piece, click below:

2018-26 – Be Seated

The Weather Man

28 Plays Later – Challenge #25
Every writer has started working on something and then gave up halfway through.
We all have somewhere an incomplete idea or play.

Your challenge for today, should you choose to accept it,
is to find one of those ideas and complete them!


About the play:

Since I don’t have any scripts that meet this requirement, or any incomplete stories that I wanted to turn into scripts, I took a piece of flash-fic that I wrote a while ago and expanded it into a play.

Weather Man via Flash Prompt





Hey, yo! It’s the weather man! Sam, Sam the weather man! Whatcha got for us today?


Joe, get back to work. Poor S.O.B. can’t help his obsession.


It’s not an obsession.


Kinda surprised you have your kid with you, Sam. She have any clue about Daddy’s empty bottles?

SAM (patiently):

They’re not empty. I’ve captured two squalls just this week.


Right. Squalls in bottles. As if. Look maybe you should try catching time. You know, like the song. (Sings) If I could keep time in a bot-tle, the first thing that I’d like to dooooooooo.


Time is just an artificial construct. Weather? Weather is real.

To read the entire piece, click the link below:

2018-25 – The Weather Man