Sunday, April 21, 2024

What Am I Receiving?

 What Am I Receiving?


We live in a pervasive culture of entitlement.  It is fashionable to imagine: “I’m a self-made person.  I got to where I am by my own considerable efforts.  I pay my own way and don’t owe anything to anyone.” While it may feel good to entertain this lofty position, it could hardly be further from the truth. It is a convenient lie.  For all of us.


No one grows to adulthood “on his own.”  Each of us is alive because someone gave us our life, fed us, clothed us, sheltered us and offered us protection for many years.  Human children cannot survive in the wild “on their own.”  Face it, we are all here thanks to the efforts and support of others. Modern psychologists give much emphasis to emotional wellbeing. This can blind us to the reality of the physical and financial support each of us must have had to reach adult life. We simply take all this for granted as if it is our “right. It is altogether common to focus on the quality of parenting and miss the fact of it.  “My father was distant and rarely ‘there for me,” we hear someone whine. What are they missing?  Did he provide a home for you?  Did he pay the bills for your food and education?  Perhaps not, but you lived somewhere and someone was supporting you.


The elephant in the living room, is the indisputable fact that each of us is alive and thriving (or even existing) thanks to the efforts of countless others. All of us without exception consume food, energy, and knowledge given to us by others. When have you stopped to take stock of these ongoing gifts? Perhaps you say, they are too many to count. This is a convenient excuse to avoid facing reality. There is value in actually counting this countless list.  To investigate the truth of this claim I invite students to respond to the question:  “Thanks to whom are you here?”  Here can mean, in this room now, or alive today or whatever makes sense to you.

Try this now.  Stop for 15 minutes and begin a list of all of those who have contributed to your life right now. Be specific.  Generalizations don’t offer the insight gained from a specific example. Some may be people you know personally, some may be people you know by name, others whose names you don’t know, but recognize their contribution, e.g. “the person who engineered the software for this computer made it possible for me to be typing now.  


Continue to add to the list . . . do this for a half hour if you can.  


I gave this assignment to a class of Stanford University students in an Improvisation class.  Their lists were long and impressive. They all agreed that this line of thinking was a new direction, and a useful one.  Seeing what sustains us as “a gift” rather than an entitlement creates a new world, one in which our stock has gone up.  We begin to view ourselves on the receiving end.  The formal way to ask this question is:  “What have I received from others?”


The word receive is a powerhouse.  I don’t think Westerners mine this word for all it can mean.  The Japanese have a polite phrase “itadakimasu” that is heard dozens of times a day in ordinary situations.  Literally it means “I am receiving” or “I notice that I am receiving.”  It is said instead of a grace before a meal.  “I notice that I am about to receive nourishment.”  It is used when someone proffers a gift.  “I notice that I am receiving a present from you.”  It is a cultural heads-up, an announcement to the world that I am aware of being on the receiving end of some transaction.  


It is the opposite of entitlement.  


The self-made man in the West pays his own way.  When he receives the sirloin steak in a restaurant there is no sense of it being any kind of gift since he is paying for it.  Paying for something cancels any notion of indebtedness.  The illusion of money robs us of having to become aware of the experience of receiving. “I’ve bought this or I own this” is a natural way to avoid discovering a vital truth about how life works.  We are all here thanks to the ongoing effort of uncountable others.  What can help us break through this arrogance is to actually start counting. Perhaps start by counting the number of meals your mother made for you up until age 10, for example. 


I think the Japanese have got it right.  When a plate of food arrives in front of us we are receiving something.  And, if we examine it, that food has a chain of suppliers who have made it possible.  There is the farmer who grew the food, the middlemen who brings it to market, those who prepare it and serve it, to name a few.  This logical chain is a real one and it results in a consumable that allows me to live. The remarkable book, Thanks a Thousand,ˆby A. J. Jacobs traces one man’s investigation into the 1000 names of people all of whom contributed to his cup of coffee on a given day.

It’s a tragedy to miss this understanding.  The best we usually hope for is to like the taste of the steak and consider it was perfectly cooked.  Then we say “It was delicious!”  But we still have not understood that we have received it.  It strikes me as especially egregious when, for example, we complain about the food taking a long time to come, or about the personality of the waitperson.  It is not uncommon to leave the restaurant dismissing it all as “poor service.” And all the time dozen people have been working to feed me and nourish me.   How easy it is to miss all that we receive.


Victor Frankl’s moving book, Man’s Search for Meaning, reminds us that regardless of circumstances each of us chooses his own attitude toward life.  Life itself is a gift any way you look at it.  Fear may prohibit this discovery.  No one wants to feel indebted.  We all like to imagine that we are “paying our way, pulling our weight, doing our share.”  If I truly understand my indebtedness it can wake up an impulse to give something back.  And, as we count the physical labor and effort involved in each step of the process we can cultivate a healthy understanding of our place in the world.


I invite the reader to spend an hour and answer this question.  “What have I received from others that makes my life what it is today?”  I predict you will discover that you are receiving much.  This truth can change your life.  It did for me.




Patricia Ryan Madson

El Granada, California, USA

Emerita, Stanford University



February 19, 2024


First draft: November 3, 2015




Tuesday, January 2, 2024

The Yelp of Yesterday: People

 “Soon enough, nobody will remember life before the Internet.  What does this unavoidable fact mean?”


Michael Harris, The End of Absence (2014),


The Yelp of Yesterday

Harris’ profound book is a wake-up call to those of us “of a certain age.”  He points out that at 77 I fall into a demographic that has lived as an adult through both a life with and without the Internet. “If we’re the last people in history to know life before the Internet, we are also the only ones who will ever speak, as it were, both languages. We are the only fluent translators of Before and After.”


 The story of my midlife trip around the world, without a phone, seems more important in the light of his observation.  No one born today or hereafter can ever take a trip around the world without a phone . . . even if they don’t carry one themselves.  So it falls to me to tell the story of what that was like. 


I arrived on a night bus from the Phuket airport to the coast side town.  I spent my fortieth birthday alone on Kata Beach in Thailand.  There were no birthday greetings since I was 3000 miles from home and there was no telephone  service of any kind or post office in the beachfront town where I had rented a thatched cottage by the beach. Facebook wasn’t even a twinkle in someone’s eye and there was no such thing as Wi-fi anywhere. Anywhere.  On that December 3 day, I watched a sunset break over the ocean so pink and peach and lavender spectacular that I can still remember it. My diary noted that the only person I had spoken to all day was a waiter who brought me grilled fish. I did a small watercolor painting in my journal to commemorate that sunset. 


The year was 1982 and I was six months into a trip around the world. I was alone, carrying one small brown suitcase and I was without a phone. It was as close to paradise as I can imagine. The place was actually called Shangri-la, if you can believe it. I was surrounded by solitude, nature and what Michael Harris calls “absence.”  


I’m not here as a crusader about the “good old days” to compare the magic of traveling without Yelp or a GPS.  Recounting the trip does point out that attention was a more natural exercise without the constant distraction of our devices.


When I wanted to know something, I would ask someone or if the question was factual I would go to a library and stand in front of long rows of wooden drawers filled with cream colored index cards: the card catalogue. These cards, which were carefully indexed by subject, name or author, were just the first step in acquiring what was needed to answer a question.  Once a likely book was identified there was the issue of getting the book.  Perhaps it was in the stacks above or it may have been housed in another library.  I might need to fill out a request for an interlibrary loan, wait two weeks and then return to have a look at the book.  When I was able to get my hands on the book then I needed to read it, cull the information, formulate an answer to my query and jot down the findings on some 3 X 5 note cards that I kept in a little green tin box.  Research.


No future generation will ever go through this procedure.  It would have seemed like science fiction to imagine typing a question onto a computer screen or speaking the question out loud and having the answer appear instantly. Research.  Really?  


Actual humans were the Yelp of yesterday.  As I traveled the world and wanted to know a good place to crash or a reliable bus route or the best local fish I would ask someone I met on the road.  Strangers became the links to places, goods and services.  I kept a tiny notebook in which I would record recommendations gathered along the way. In Nepal it was the Kathmandu Guest House or K. C.’S Restaurant and on Bali it was Murni’s Restaurant where I’d go to get the scoop on travel tips.  I learned to trust the network of travelers I met. On the road to Pokhara I met someone who had just come from there and had a suggestion for a good place to sleep.  


The key life skill that was needed was the ability to pay attention to reality, to stay alert to all that was happening and to the people I met and the advice I gathered. Attention became my best friend and the biggest challenge as I traveled.    


From my diary of December 5, 1982  


“I realized that traveling well takes real alertness, attention, mindfulness and a high degree of tolerance and flexibility. I'm gaining these skills. Spacing out is not allowed. In transit I must stay clear. That's probably why traveling is such real work. There is no time to go slack.”




Monday, October 30, 2023

Patricia Ryan Madson . . . Early years. 1942 - 1965


            I have a clear memory of a vocabulary lesson in sixth grade English: the word was "pragmatic."  I loved the word immediately.  I have always been drawn toward utility.   For me the useful and the beautiful are one.   I prefer any gift that is useful over something strictly decorative. Baskets, boxes, bags and small holders of things are appealing to me.  Art is best, I think, when it teaches something important about living or can be used in daily life.  I am drawn to calligraphy for the message that infuses the artwork and to beautiful pottery in that can be used to hold food.  Textiles that cover the body, warm the bed or cover the floor interest me. The highest compliment I know as a teacher is that some teaching has proven useful to a student.  Utility, the summum bonum.

            I have a reverence for the practical . . . the pragmatic.  I don't know where this deep sense comes from.  It seems that I have had it from earliest memory, and it forms the basis of my personal values. This attraction led me into theatre. Theatre offers a concrete form for expression, for community.  It provides something that we all need- scheduled community organized around work that results in a gift. I loved studying theatre in college because it gave me a place to go every evening and be with others in a way that was not merely social.  We did something together; we expressed ourselves to one another using a playwrights words.  When we had finished the process of rehearsing we invited a big group (the audience) to our party and played for them, with them, in front of them.  And then we closed up our work, struck the set, put away the costumes, wiped clean the makeup tables, threw away the wilted flowers from our admirers, and celebrated with a cast party where we ate, danced, sang and congratulated one another for our mutual work.  

            I've often thought I was in it for the parties and the unique sense of belonging that develops within the cast of a play.  I liked having a fixed ending: closing night.  This "family" then went its separate ways.  A new community formed with each new project.  Because the act of creating  theatre together meets so many human needs -- community, expression, order and celebration--it is a form worth preserving and developing.

            It was unexpected that I became a Drama teacher.  Professor Raymond Hodges,  Chair of the Theatre Arts Department of what was then called Richmond Professional Institute (now Virginia Commonwealth University) called me in to suggest that I apply for a job as the Drama teacher at St. Catherine's School for Girls in Richmond, Virginia.   He had seen in me something that pointed toward this calling.   I had no training as a teacher.   Literally the thought had not crossed my mind.  I was interested in Theatre but mainly as an actress.  I knew hardly enough about this wide and deep profession to act in it.  Soon I would be teaching it to others.

            We sometimes teach out of our own ignorance and as the writer of  Jonathan Livingston Seagull pointed out: "We teach what we most need to learn."  That was indeed my case.   St. Catherine's School hired me in the summer of 1964 to begin as "the Drama teacher" for the whole school.  I even had my very own theatre, McVey Hall, a sturdy proscenium house that seated four or five hundred students.  In addition to the formal school auditorium, McVey Hall had an office for the Drama teacher and an entire Costume Shop behind it. 

             The Costume Shop was packed with dusty boxes filled with an overabundance of used articles given by the Jr. League after they were rejected at the church thrift sale.  Weekly some lady  would appear at the back door with a "donation to the costume shop."   There were also old costumes that had been sewn for school plays going back at least 50 years.  My predecessor had been a round faced white haired woman who had lovingly cared for these garments, collecting them over the years and cataloging them in boxes labeled "Hats, Men, felt, fedoras (1930's)" and in crayon handwritten on the same box "Archies' bowler."  

            I maintained that wilderness of cloth and gilt and memories during my two years as a resident teacher there, chain smoking menthol cigarettes in my office when I wasn't teaching or directing.  It fell to me to direct the annual St. Catherine's Day pageant, an event that honored the Senior girl who most personified the qualities of the school's namesake.  It was an odd ritual to my mind.  Poor St. Catherine died having been tortured on a wheel.  I can't remember ever knowing what her crime was, but I do remember clearly that the Lower school girls all did artwork for the big day rendering their youthful vision of what it looked like to be tortured on a rack.  All along the wall of the Lower school were appalling pictures, stick figures and some better, of a woman with blood gushing out of her, spread eagle, nailed to a giant wheel.  Early porn as far as I could tell which everyone took very, very seriously.  

            The pageant itself was a big deal.  The entire school got to vote on who would be "St. Catherine" and her maid of honor  or I think it was called the "Standard Bearer" (the runner up).  As the Drama teacher I was the very first to know the name of the chosen since it fell to me to outfit her to appear on stage in a tableaux as the martyred Saint.    There was a box marked "St. Catherine's Day - Costumes"  In it were a series of costume pieces and crowns and props used every year for this event.  It was a tradition that the girl chosen as St. Catherine would wear the same dress that had been worn by all the other St. C's from beginningless time.  When I pulled out THE DRESS I was horrified to see that it was literally falling apart.  It had been altered so often that the seams and darts were shredding and the waistline had pulled apart from the shirt.  It was probably a size 7 in today's measure and perfect if you were doing a wax figure of  Mrs. Amersham, the old woman who at 94 was still waiting for the groom to arrive amid the cobwebs in the Gothic novel.

            What needed to be done was to design a new gown for St. C that "fits all sizes".  So I created a design of a flowing "mu-mu" garment held together by a golden cord at the waist which crossed the body decorously.  I cut a piece from the heirloom dress worn by 50 years of St. Catherines and sewed it into the hem of the new costume to honor the tradition.  I considered those young women to come over the years and future Drama teachers who would be saved the long night of alterations of the old gown.  I wonder if that costume survives? 



Thursday, August 3, 2023

Improv Game: Random Acts of Kindness

Random Acts of Kindness Introductions

The Improv Game created by Nat Tsolak

August, 2015



From Wikipedia:

“Random act of kindness

random act of kindness is a selfless act performed by a person or people wishing either to assist or to cheer up an individual person or people. The phrase may have been coined by Anne Herbert, who says that she wrote "Practice random kindness and senseless acts of beauty" on a place mat at a Sausalito restaurant in 1982 or 1983.[1][2] Either spontaneous or planned, random acts of kindness are encouraged by various communities.”


One of the perks of being a member of the AIN (Applied Improv Network) is meeting others around the world involved in using improvisation tools to help people.  Nat Tsolak from the UK (London) has a background in both Psychology and business as well as comedy improv.  We have never met, but reading his posts on Facebook I’m sure that we’d be great friends if our paths do breach the big pond someday.  


A few weeks ago I was intrigued by an announcement that he had created a new game that he calls: “Random Acts of Kindness.”  His purpose, he states, in coming up with the game was to find a way to build trust between strangers that didn’t rely on true personal revelations.  And also to give new players a chance to practice making up improvised stories.


So, the basic game, as I understand it, is for a member of the group to introduce another member by telling an improvised story which features their subject having done a “random act of kindness.”   The real value, as I see it, is to speak about someone in a wholly positive light, raising his status by sharing the little known fact.  E. g.  “I’d like to introduce Jason.  Very few people know that he always pays for the guy behind him when he crosses a toll bridge or paid freeway.”  “Meet Selena.  She collects water in a watering can in her shower and everyday waters her neighbor’s flower garden.  With the California drought it has made a difference.”


The idea is to simply endow someone as having done a kind and thoughtful deed that benefits others.  There is no need for the story to be wildly creative or fantastical.  (Although it can be.) The key thing is for us all to see that person (that character) in a positive light.  I think an added benefit is that these ideas fill the room with warm pictures of human actions that help others.  


A development of the game is to have the recipient agree to the story and add a detail from their perspective.  To illustrate this (Jason above) might add:  “Yes, and one day a lady was so charmed by my paying her toll that she rushed to catch up with me, jumped out of the car at a stoplight where we were both stopped and gave me a rose!”


Clearly, this game (as is true for most games) can be used for other purposes.  A lot depends upon what the early examples are.  It’s certainly possible to use the prompt as a way of coming up with the most elaborate and hysterical “act”, and thereby turn the game into a comedy creation session.   For my money, striving to make the endowments into wildly silly actions subverts the game.  Then, participants get the idea that we are trying to create “crazy stuff ” and may miss the point of making their partner look good.  When I teach this I always remind them that simple, ordinary examples of a “random act” are terrific.  We aren’t trying to outdo each other with cleverness.  Our purpose is to make up a story that tells of a positive action someone did.  The person receiving the story about them should feel great!  Maybe that’s the measure of the game.  

Saturday, May 20, 2023

Thoughts on becoming a better partner

A Better Marriage: 
Five Ways to be a good husband or wife

Constructive Living reminds us that we can only improve ourselves. We can’t “fix” other people no matter how long or hard we try. So give up effort in trying to change your partner. If you want a better marriage do things that make you a more loving and thoughtful wife or husband. 

Here are five practical techniques: 

1. Become a world class listener. When your partner speaks shut down your inner monologue and respectfully really listen to what they are saying. Pay special attention if they mention likes/dislikes so that you can act on these when you can. Never interrupt. 

2. Create family rituals/routines and do them together. E.g. Make the bed together each morning. Hold hands when you say a grace or blessing. Create a “Friday night Pizza and Movie”. Go to the Farmer’s Market together on the weekend.

 3. Give to your partner. Give gifts, especially handmade (favorite cookies, a night at their favorite restaurant), Do “Secret Service” These are little surprises like filling up the car with gas, noticing that he/she has run out of a favorite soap and replacing it. Take care of something without mentioning it or taking credit. (An unpaid bill) If you “get caught” it’s okay to fess up. GIVE time to help them with projects. GIVE “Thanks” . . . . notice and thank specifically for little things as well as large. A wise man once said: “Give what you want to get.” 

4. Touch.: Hug, kiss, hold hands, Massage feet and shoulders. 

5. Offer to help them with their purposes. E.g. . . . wash his running clothes, buy her some special art supplies, etc. 

All these suggestions are within your power. You don’t have to wait for your spouse to change. The simple act of really listening can open new lines of communication. Don’t assume because you’ve heard this story before that you know it’s importance. Ask questions to discover why they love to tell this story. It is also a thoughtful thing to always consider the convenience of your spouse. Give them the tastiest piece of meat, the best seat at the table and the choice of what show to watch together. The more you focus on what you can give your partner I predict the stronger your marriage can become.

 Patricia Ryan Madson 
El Granada, CA 
May 20, 2023

Thursday, April 20, 2023

The Culture of Improv

 Our Culture of Improv


What do we all need?  


To belong.  

To be safe. 

To be valued.  

To feel free to be yourself. 

To create without fear of judgement. 

To be surrounded by people who support you.  

To laugh uncontrollably at things that are genuinely funny.

To do all this with no special equipment or training. 


I just spent a weekend at Stanford when all the above were in play.  The occasion was the 32nd year Reunion of the Stanford Improvisors (Simps), a group I started in 1991 that thrives into today. The most recent count shows 376 members.


Thanks to the heroic work of three former Simps, Jessia Hoffman, Will Setrakian and Megan Calfas former group members from all over the country left their kids and day jobs to show up at the Elliot Program Center on campus. This simple, empty space with only metal chairs and folding tables became a sanctuary for connection and joyous reunion.  


On Thursday night we were feted with a delicious Mediterranean meal and the chance to mingle, hug and discover the names of old and new compatriots.  As we introduced ourselves in a quick “go around” we discovered Philosophy, Film, Engineering, Design and English professors, a Minister, a Pediatrician, a Primary Care Physician, Writers, Actors, a Climate change specialist, an Assistant US Attorney, a scientist working to make AI safer . . . and a host of other valuable professions.  It seems that improvising at university had prepared a gaggle of graduates to meet many of the needs of the world.


We came together because the culture of improv we learned and practiced while at Stanford as a part of this group had implanted in us life skills that addressed those “needs” mentioned in the first paragraph.  The cardinal rule of improvising is to say YES to life, to accept and build on others’ ideas. It’s impossible to imagine a more positive and uplifting assembly.


All day Friday we were treated to workshops that ranged from Playful Mindfulness to Puppetry.  After a wonderful Asian Box lunch, I held court to riff on the history of improv at Stanford and my delight in being with the new members of the group.


On Saturday there was an all-day marathon Theatresports tourney that featured 16 teams. Eight matches were played and adjudicated by triads of solemn judges.  After a sumptuous dinner of Thai food, we all attended the Final Championship round of the four highest scoring teams.  Each team was given one scene for their bid for the Champion title.  After some truly awesome improv, the team “THE FOUR PACK” (Lisa Rowland, Jenn Chou, Matty Merrill, and Max Sosna-Spear) won it ALL. Their “Scene, within a scene, within a scene” rocked it!!


What made this weekend magical? It was the experience of living and playing in a unique culture.  From the outset—

 the SIMPS have embodied a particular variety of improv culture.  It was (and continues to be) one of kindness.  While it is not unusual for any improv group to be agreeable folks, playful and talented at making up stories, what defines SIMPS is a way of working and playing that is unique.  Years ago, the group traveled south to LA to take part in a California improv festival.  When I spoke with one of the coordinators to check on how the group had performed, he said: “The Stanford Improvisors are the nicest group any of us have ever played with.” I can’t think of a higher compliment.  The nicest group.  Wonderful. Over the years this ephemeral quality has prevailed.  I don’t know how one teaches this, but clearly it has been passed along through the culture of kindness.


I can’t take any credit for this.  I simply planted a few seeds over thirty years ago. The garden has been thriving.  I marvel that we seem to have created a new species of flower: the culture of kindness. Thank you, SIMPS.


Patricia Ryan Madson

April 18, 2023








Friday, March 17, 2023

The passing of a mentor

“When the student is ready, the teacher will appear. .  .”



In the summer of 1980, I attended a Tai Chi workshop at Esalen with my teacher, Chiang Liang Al Huang.  Al was fond of inviting other interesting teachers to join him and do their thing to break up the day of dancing.  I was delighted to discover that his guest partner this summer was a charming Brit named Keith Johnstone who had just published a new book, Impro, in 1979. 


As the newly appointed head of the undergraduate acting program at Stanford in 1977 my most puzzling problem was how to get my bright young actors “out of their heads” and into their bodies and imaginations. Johnstone’s fresh take on acting descended precisely on cue in my life. I stayed up all night reading IMPRO.  It changed everything. The workshop was memorable and in a short time Keith and I became friends. 


I reveled in the chance to drive him around the Bay Area introducing him not only to theater people buy also to a few Zennies. Various groups adopted him. A notable workshop in the early ‘80’s was at the San Francisco Zen Center.  I’ll never forget Keith side coaching me and Reb Anderson playing the “hat game”. Reb became the Abbot a few years later. These were also the years that BATS was coming into being. In that decade I used every means available to bring Keith to the Bay Area to continue his lively work.  


Keith even flew in from Calgary to attend my wedding in St. Helena in 1989.


In the summer of 1993 Keith came to Stanford to hold court every morning as the featured professor for a weeklong Improv intensive. It was such a success that Keith came again in 1994.  Engineering professors attended these workshops and word spread fast that something special was happening over in the Drama Dept. Members of the BATS school joined the fun teaching specialty classes in the afternoon.  The summer intensive idea was then adopted by BATS who continued the tradition of a Keith-centered course.  The BATS summer school, featuring Keith, had become a centerpiece of their year.


It was always a happy moment when Keith would shuffle into the theater, sit on the edge

of the stage and sigh deeply as he surveyed the audience.  Looking slightly lost he would mumble something like: “You guys already know everything, so I don’t know what to teach you. (sighs heavily).  I suppose if you want to work on relationships or stories we can do some stuff.

I just need a couple people up here.”  And, off he’d go telling witty stories of people he knew or films he’d seen or read while side coaching the actors to “be average.”


Keith was an original.  He was one of the kindest people I’ve ever known. I believe that he finished his work on earth by seeding a thousand teachers of his life affirming notions of how theater should delight us and embolden the actor to give up fear of not being enough.  Keith was enough . . . and then some.


Patricia Ryan Madson

March 17, 2023, St, Patrick’s Day




Sunday, August 28, 2022

Long form theater at its best. The Bechtel Test August 2016

 Reflections  . . .

Stories Starring Women  The Bechtel Test  

Celebrating the Everyday life of Women

 BATS Improv August 26 and 27, 2016

Something monumental in social and artistic history happened last night.  Despite my body being on Greenwich Mean Time from a month in the UK I awoke before dawn in California this morning with the sure knowledge that I needed to write about last night’s triumph at BATS.

Lisa Rowland, fast becoming a major voice, player and teacher of improvisation on the west coast and internationally, produced and directed a two night run of improvised stories about women.  She assembled a seasoned and talented cast of seven improvisers, including veterans Rebecca Stockley and Barbara Scott. Representing the Millennials was Lisa herself and Rebecca Portesky and Kimberly Maclean.  As supporting members of the ensemble she chose Dave Dennison and William Hall.  Seven improvisers bounded on the BATS stage with the promise of exploring how a few guidelines which tilted the balance of power in the direction of women might result in an evening’s entertainment before a live audience.

For anyone reading this who is a follower of improvisational theater in the Bay Area (and worldwide) knows there is groundbreaking artistic work being done here.  Among the dozens of long form theater groups experimenting and evolving new forms are the notable “3 for All,” “Awkward Dinner Party,” “The SF Improv Playhouse,” the LA based ”Impro Theatre” and “Noir Unscripted.” These currently active groups are part of a succession of twenty years of development in theatrical forms preceded by “True Fiction Magazine” and “Pulp Playhouse” to name only a few.  Someone needs to write the history of this movement, which is largely unknown to the wider theater going community.  Even in enlightened environments such as Stanford University “improv” is still looked upon as that comedy stuff.  This is a topic for a longer piece, but I need to return to the purpose of this essay: to talk about Lisa Rowland’s experiment this weekend.

Her company of improvisers, including the legendary musician, J Raoul Brody and lighting improviser Ana Nelson, did something last night that I had never seen in 50 years of theater going.  I may overstate this when I say that the “holy grail” of long form improv is to create authentic theater capable of bringing an audience to tears, touching the heart and mind and delighting us all with its freshness and clarity.  In the past year I have seen increasingly skillful work that has moved the genre of long form into a new level.  Last night tears flowed as I watched a group of ordinary characters, women, who were struggling with everyday challenges.  In the two-hour performance no one got shot or blown up.  No one screamed and raged for attention or power, and mostly everyone got along.  The agonies and triumphs were little things . . . like overcoming social anxiety or accepting the imperfections of ones parents.  Characters talked to each other, often quietly.  I never once noticed an improviser going for the quick joke or laugh.  What was riveting to me was just how dramatic ordinary life (among women) could be. 

There was a kind and persistent boyfriend played by William Hall who gently worked to give his intended “space” in order for their relationship to continue.  In another simple scene Daisy (Kimberly MacLean) has an audience with a kindly banker, played by Dave Dennison.  She is seeking a loan for a business venture to build a community center for at-risk youth.  Her unabashed surprise when she gets the loan of $40K was moving.  Characters mostly helped each other and listened to one another.  The entire arch of the show was character rather than plot driven.  This choice provided spaciousness for everyone to be themselves and share the stage with a series of “ordinary miracles.”  

Rebecca Poretsky’s character, Wally was a scientist with a lot of control issues.  A particularly skillful scene was a meeting with her graduate assistants to discuss research.  Each character seemed fully developed and involved.

Near the end of the story a particularly moving scene involved the two aging sisters, Annie (Rebecca Stockley) and, I think it was Maureen played by Barbara Scott.  Maureen leads Annie into her room with the line.  “Come sit down, I need to ask for your help.”  After a long pause, she continues:  “I’m dying, Annie. And, I need a kidney.  You are a match because of our DNA.”  And, Annie throwing her arms around her sister, begins a deep and soulful acceptance of this offer.  “Of course  I will.  You NEED me.  That is the most important thing in life: to be truly needed (sobbing into her lap)”  (I fear I do disservice here to the actual dialog but I hope you will forgive me.)  It appeared to me that Rebecca’s character had real tears flowing too.

And, before I leave the impression that crying on stage or in the audience is the summum bonum let me say that this emotional reaction is just a measure of the kind of human story that was unfolding on stage.  Lisa’s show parameters provided a crucible for these kinds of stories to be told.  In the after show talkback we learned that the “rules” governing this run were simple and hearkened to the Bechdal Test.

1. These would be scenes and stories by and about women who talked to each other

2. The structure began with three monologues 

3. All characters would be living in the same contemporary time zone

4. The two men in the cast would play supporting roles only

The result of these restrictions was dynamic.  Until we encounter its opposite we cannot really know how a cultural bias (e.g.  Dramatic stories are about men.) is skewing the onstage world.  

The improv stage for long form ensembles has always struck me as a political space.  Five players get an audience suggestion and begin constructing a play in our presence.  Who becomes the hero, the villain, the sidekick, the foil?  Usually in the first five minutes of a show there is a subtle power grab for who will dominate or control the evenings destiny.  Over the years I have watched with interest how some actor/improvisers are “drivers”  . . . that is, they tend to dominate the space.  Over time it has been a pleasure as an audience member to see many of these “givens” change.  What fun to see a player who usually grabs the spotlight now “hang back” and serve the narrative as a support instead of a primary.  Looked at carefully all of this jockeying for control onstage is a natural part of the art form.  In “The Bechdel Test” last night the two male cast members were simply instructed:  “Play support.”   William Hall mentioned that this instruction gave him a new perspective.  As a performer he could actively choose NOT to take control, no matter how interesting his idea might be.  “Stay in your place”  was a helpful guideline.  And, once this agreement was in place the five women could breathe deeply and see what developed between them as the stories unfolded.  The result was deeply satisfying.

Perhaps as a woman audience member I’ve had a longing for women’s stories that I didn’t even know existed until last night when this dream was fulfilled.  Thank you Lisa for your vision and for creating an environment for us all to see the power of women’s stories honestly told.  Looks like you got an A+ on your Bechdel Test.  I’m looking forward to seeing more.

Patricia Ryan Madson

El  Granada, CA

Friday, June 24, 2022

The Thirteen Maxims Etegami Cards

When I published my book, Improv Wisdom, Don't Prepare, Just Show Up in 2005 there were no graphics or images connected to the book.  Just this year the Chinese edition is being revised to include these thirteen cards, each representing one of the Maxims.  

Many of my friends encouraged me to copy the cards and make them available as a set.  I've been able to have them reproduced by a wonderful company called

They are available for sale.  A single set, including postage costs $25US.  Additional sets are $20.   To order a set, message me via email   Payment can be made via VENMO.  @Patricia-Madson or via PayPal using the address.  

These are a limited edition, so if you'd like them, I encourage you to order soon. 


Monday, December 6, 2021

Shall We Improvise?


                        “In the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.”                                                                                 ― Charles Darwin

                                                  Shall We Improvise?

Dreaming of a well-organized life, stress free? When was the last time that everything went exactly as planned?  Good luck. And in our crazy, cattywumpus Covid world there is very little that is stable and predictable.  The reality is that we are improvising most of the time. So, why not take a few tips from the professionals?  

I’ve spent a wonderful career teaching improvisation around the globe and across ages and professions including thousands of Stanford students. I’m not talking about improv comedy, although some study this work to perform on stage. Improvisors are able to create full length plays without a script because they are operating on a few simple, yet profound maxims.  My tilt is using the foundational principles of improvisation as a Mindset for a meaningful life.  These principles can help you become a better listener, a more grateful partner and a more confident you. Here are the four pillars of improv:





Attention is our superpower. Never take it for granted. Use it to improve your life. Begin to take control of what you are noticing.  Notice what you notice.  And if your mind drifts off into rumination, anxiety, or daydreams return your attention to the world you inhabit.  Notice the detail of that world.  And, if you can, savor the moment.  Isn’t this tangerine succulent? What a nice breeze this afternoon? “What am I doing right now?  Scrambling eggs.  Don’t they look delicious.” It is common to walk around lost in thought.  Start the habit of noticing more.  Shift your attention from self to other.  Become a better listener.  Observe your world more deeply.

Acceptance is the foundation of a satisfying life.  The improvisor’s basic rule is to say yes to all offers.  Of course, this isn’t the same thing as liking whatever comes your way.  Acceptance implies a default perspective of opening to what life brings.  We say yes—AND.  This means to build upon the reality you find yourself in.  Life may bring you an unexpected illness or professional surprise.  The improvisor says:  “Now how can I work with this?  How can I find the good and make this into something interesting--even a win?  We build upon our capacity to take a constructive and positive attitude toward life.  

Appreciation is the capacity to “find the good and praise it.” This is the life skill of constantly asking the question: “What am I receiving now and from whom?” I am a great believer in radical gratitude. This involves more than the current fad of thinking of ‘three things I’m grateful for.’ Ordinarily we only feel gratitude for things we like or that make us happy.  What about all of those services and things that keep our lives going? Even the ones we pay for . . .

Thanking people for work well done and for things we like and to those who are nice and cheerful and thoughtful should be a no brainer. What I’m suggesting today is something fundamental; I want us all to take a deeper look at the support we receive—all the time—from countless individuals.  Who or what makes your life possible right now?  This computer allows me to write this article.  Thanks to those who designed and created it, and thanks to my husband who gave it me as a gift.  When we really start to notice our world (see Attention above) we can discover that we are “thirsty, swimming in the lake” . . . that is, everything we need is around us if we simply pay attention to it.  Appreciation takes an ordinary life and makes it extraordinary.


Action creates our world.  What we do matters.  While we can’t control feelings per se we can always control our behavior.  Feeling a little grumpy and sad?  Try doing something physical . . . clean out one shelf in the pantry.  Sweep the sidewalk.  Fold the laundry.  Take a long, spirited walk and notice the colors of the season.  Or turn your appreciation into action:  write a thank you note by hand and mail it.  Improvisors know that we can take a step into the unknown to discover where we are going.  We can act without knowing the outcome; and by starting anywhere we get the engine running and in no time we find a direction.  The improvisors' motto is :  ready, fire, aim!    Maybe it is not so crazy to begin something without a clear or complete plan. If we take a first step in any direction we are in a new position to see what is possible. Uncertainty is natural.


The practice of improvising our lives teaches us to trust reality and have confidence in our ability to manage challenges.  And, in the act of improvising we are likely to make some mistakes.  This is natural.  Applaud yourself when it doesn’t work out.  Learn something from it and redirect your focus.  Mistakes are so often our friends.


And a final piece of improv advice is to “aim for average” . . . Use your ordinary mind to do or create what is obvious to you.  Relax your “clever” muscles.  You will do better if you give up trying so hard.  Be average.  It’s enough.


I’ve found that the maxims of improvising turn out to be valuable life advice.  You might seek out an improv class to test this thesis.  Even if you are sure that you have no talent for improvising you will likely be surprised when you try.  Or you may find some ideas and exercises in my book, Improv Wisdom, Don’t Prepare, Just Show Up, 2005, Bell Tower Books, Random House.  It’s available as an audio and Ebook and it’s in nine languages.  It’s full of tips and exercises.


And you have my wish for a life of many happy improvisations.  Keep on saying YES to life.