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.

Yes.

And.

The play of life? It’s unscripted.

Great Writing Requires an Awesome Hat

Awesome Hats

This piece originally ran as part of my Sunday Brunch column in All Things Girl on 12 January 2014.

A few days ago, I made a post on Facebook about how while most of the country had been in the throes of a polar vortex which made temperatures plunge into the sub-zero ranges, I had been in the throes of a writing vortex. I gave the credit for my recent habit of writing in excess of 5,000 words a day to a green hat my friend Jeremy made for me several years ago.

It’s true that this particular hat has been my headgear of choice this winter, but it’s not the first “writing hat” I’ve ever had. It’s also true that was not my first-ever writing vortex, but it’s the longest, most productive such period I’ve had in probably a decade, and that includes at least four successful completions of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month).

For me, both the hats and the vortices began with Jo March, my favorite character from Little Women, which I read for the first time when I was six. At first my mother read the chapters aloud to me at bedtime, but eventually I grew impatient to know what came next, and I improved my reading ability so I could find out. That was the last book we read together in that way; now we just trade books back and forth.

In any case, the image of Jo with her special writing clothes on, scribbling away in her attic atelier, is one that instantly entranced me, and I’ve been using my own form of writerly cos-play to keep the muse active ever since. Sometimes that includes whole outfits; but mostly it involves hats.

My first writing hat was a black velvet beret, big enough for me to tuck all my hair into (at a time when I had long hair, even) and adorned by a red bow. At least, it had a red bow until the bow fell off, and after that I decorated it with a succession of funky pins – gold stars, silver fairies, a bar pin featuring a jazz trio – things of that ilk. I wore that hat forever, and not just to write. It was a trusty friend through my high school and college years, until I finally killed it by accidentally melting it to death with a curling iron.

In retrospect, the curling iron vandalism might have been a sort of homage to Jo March as well, albeit an unintentional one.

My second writing hat was also black and velvet, but this time it was a baseball cap. I love baseball caps because when my hair is long enough for a pony-tail, I can stick it through the gap above the adjustment tab. This one was pretty plain, but I jazzed it up with a giant dragon-fly pin. Once, I wore it to work (it was a hat-friendly workplace) and my supervisor looked at it and said, “That dragon-fly is scary. And awesome. Carry on.”

I still have that hat, but I don’t really wear it to write any more, mostly because my hair is too short for a pony-tail, but partly because that dragon-fly pin is really heavy.

When I was performing with the Dallas ComedySportz troupe several years ago, I shifted my usual headgear from hats to bandannas – do-rags in the current parlance – collecting them in a wide variety of colors and styles. My favorites include a black one with lavender and green dragon-flies, and a white one with black and gold paisley patterns. I like these “kerchiefs,” as my grandmother would have called them, because they keep my hair out of my face without hurting my scalp (like a too-tight or too-heavy pony-tail can) or being too hot or heavy. I also like them because they make pirate fantasies much more accessible, but that’s another story.

So, why am I now wearing a green hat that can be a watch cap or a beret? Well, first, my friend made it for me, and I miss his daily presence in my life, so this hat is a connection to another very cool, creative person. The other reason is that, until yesterday, it’s been legitimately cold here in Texas (and not just in a cold-for-Texas kind of way – it was 23 degrees earlier this week.), and when you keep your head warm, you retain your body heat. It’s never been a secret that I like to have cool air when I sleep, but when I’m awake and writing, I prefer to be comfortably warm, and the hat has helped keep me that way.

Unlike Jo March in her garret, I don’t use the position of my hat to signal the state of my muse or telegraph my mood, but the presence (or absence) of some kind of headgear absolutely alerts my husband to whether or not my “genius is burning.”

Can great writing be accomplished without an awesome hat? Of course.

But wearing a hat, and channeling a favorite character (even if it’s a character of your own creation) makes writing – great or not – a lot more fun.

“Every few weeks she would shut herself up in her room, put on her scribbling suit, and “fall into a vortex” as she expressed it, writing away at her novel with all her heart and soul, for till that was finished she could find no peace. Her “scribbling suit” consisted of a black woolen pinafore on which she could wipe her pen at will, and a cap of the same material, adorned with a cheerful red bow, into which she bundled her hair when the decks were cleared for action. This cap was a beacon to the inquiring eyes of her family, who during these periods kept their distance, merely popping in their heads semi-occasionally, to ask, with interest, “Does genius burn, Jo?” They did not always venture even to ask this question, but took an observation of the cap, and judged accordingly. If this expressive article of dress was drawn low upon the forehead, it was a sign that hard work was going on; in exciting moments it was pushed rakishly askew; and when despair seized the author it was plucked wholly off, and cast upon the floor. At such times the intruder silently withdrew; and not until the red bow was seen gaily erect upon the gifted brow, did any one dare address Jo.”

~ Louisa May Alcott, Little Women

Sunday Brunch: That 70’s Summer

Slumber Party

My latest Sunday Brunch piece is up at All Things Girl. We’re filling the blog, while we continue to rebuild the rest of our site since it was hacked – badly – in June.

Here’s an excerpt from the piece:

If the “slumber party” was small – me and just one or two friends – we’d set up camp in my bedroom. If the group was larger, we’d take over the den or the living room. I’m sure we watched movies, but since VCRs were not yet commonplace, and DVDs hadn’t even been invented, but what I remember are the games and stories.

Slumber party games when I was seven, eight, and nine, were still pretty innocent, and the favorite thing to play was “Light as a Feather; Stiff as a Board.” There are many versions of it, and many explanations for why it becomes possible for four girls to lift a fifth using just two fingers each, but the reality is that as much as, as children, we wanted to pretend it was magic, the chant just helps to unify everyone, and the rest is basic physics.

The rest of the piece can be found HERE.

Image Copyright: creatista / 123RF Stock Photo

Starlight and Whalesong

Whale Encounter by Kareem Alqaq

Last Saturday, I went to see the grey whales, and got to pet one.

This morning, I wrote about it at All Things Girl.

Most of us think of humpback whales when we think of whale watching, but – at least here in Baja – it’s the grey whales you come to see, and it’s evident from their behavior that the whales are also here to see us. Quite social, it’s almost as if they’re trained. We are in the water with four other boats and there are three or four mother-calf pairs. The mothers, massive creatures that you never see in their entirety, stay farther away from us, monitoring the situation, but the calves are like puppies, going from boat to boat, rolling over to blink at you, or meet your gaze with theirs – they have eyelashes!!! – begging for skritches and belly-rubs, smiling and showing off their baleen.

Here’s an excerpt. For the whole piece, click here: Sunday Brunch: The Hottest Blood of All.

DCC Fan Days is Coming

DCC Fan Days

Just a quick update to let people know that I’m covering Dallas Comic Con Fan Days (Website: http://www.scifiexpo.com/DCC/fandays.html) the 4-6 of October. I’ll be doing this in my role of editor-at-large for All Things Girl.

Last year, we attended as ‘just fans’, and I enjoyed it, but I didn’t spend as much time as I wanted to engaging with the actual comicbook (one word, per Stan Lee) artists, so this year my focus will be on that, and on the fan experience in general.

Dog Days of Podcasting: Sunday Brunch – Isn’t It Pretty?

Dog Days of Podcasting

Every other Sunday, I write a column called “Sunday Brunch” for the ezine All Things Girl. Regular readers of this site have seen me link to it before.

Today, for my DDoP entry, I picked the Sunday Brunch entry from 17 February 2013, and recorded it, with a bit of extemporaneous book-ending.

You can listen to the recording at SoundCloud or play it in the applet below.

If you want to read the original column, you can find it here.

[soundcloud url=”http://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/104966247″ params=”” width=” 100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]

Sunday Brunch: Heroes, Villains, and Loss – Excerpt

reflectionthroughabugle_by_markcoffey_via_istockphoto

Reflection Through a Bugle by Mark Coffee via iStockPhoto.com – Click to embiggen

Tomorrow is Memorial Day. Earlier this week, I found out that a good writing buddy lost his battle to cancer a few months ago. He was a veteran, and an amazing writer, and so I talked a lot about him.

Excerpt:

Fading light dims the sight,
And a star gems the sky, gleaming bright.
From afar drawing nigh — Falls the night.

Like many people, however, especially those of us with family, friends, or loved ones serving in the military, “Taps” has a more emotional context. It’s the bugle call you hear at funerals, and once you’ve heard it in that setting you never lost that connection. For me, the tears come, mostly for my grandfather, but for a string of others as well, from the very first note.

This weekend, Memorial Day Weekend, “Taps” is playing on an infinite loop in my head.

Why? Because I found out recently that a dear friend, a military veteran who survived a tour in Afghanistan with the U.S. Army, then a year in Kabul with the National Guard, lost his last battle, one with that insidious enemy we call “cancer,” in February.

His name was Mike Greene, but I knew him best by the handle he used on OpenDiary (an early blogging platform that existed before LiveJournal or Blogger): WarriorPoet.

You can read the entire post here: http://allthingsgirl.com/2013/05/sunday-brunch-heroes-villains-and-loss/.

Got Verse?

Vintage Typewriter

Vintage Typewriter | Credit: MorgueFile.com | Click to embiggen

From my Sunday Brunch column at All Things Girl:

April is National Poetry Month, at least in the USA, and the eighteenth is the day we’re supposed to acknowledge the poems we carry in our pockets. Most of my clothes don’t even have pockets, and the only poetry I write is not for public consumption, but I’ve loved poetry since I was young enough to embrace A.A. Milne (he wrote SO much more than just Winnie the Pooh) and eschew Dr. Seuss (sorry but his silly sing-song-y stuff does nothing for me), so I thought I’d chat about that today.

Click to read the rest of Nostalgic Verses (Or Marmalade, Shadows, Silverstein, and Shakespeare)

Lamplight is the word of the day….

CherryBlossom-and-Lamps-by-mstroz-via-istockphoto

It’s time for Sunday Brunch at All Things Girl, and today I wrote about lamplight.

Here’s an excerpt:

I remain convinced that the only thing that would improve my house would not be replacing the cabinets or rebuilding the decorative lintel over the front door, but adding a lamp post in the center of my lawn. We have a corner lot, so a light at the center point would shine as a soft, comforting beacon no matter the direction of approach.

Streetlamps aside, my favorite days are what one of my aunts named for me: lamp-lit days. These are the days like this morning, where even hours after sunrise, the sky is shrouded in a cool mist that softens the light and deepens the shadows, making it absolutely necessary to interact with the world from within the protective circle of light from a lamp.

Oh, we have overhead lighting, of course, but somehow to use such glaring brightness would seem a sacrilege.

Click through for the complete post.