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 $30US.  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.



Friday, October 15, 2021

The Moffles

The talented artist and Family Therapist, Mikenda Plant of the U. K. specializes in helping children who are adopted or have experienced trauma. She has done me the honor of using the Maxims from Improv Wisdom as advice for kids. Thank you Mikenda. Find her work online at

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Theatre that changed everything . . .

  December 31, 1965 The Martin Beck Theater, New York City  

It was New Years eve over fifty years ago. I remember it clearly. The new year 1966 was about to be heralded in all over Manhattan. Outside Times Square was packed for the dropping of the ball.  But I was not out celebrating. I was sitting in my third row center orchestra seat in the Martin Beck Theater on Broadway ten minutes after the house had cleared. The orchestra was now empty following the performance. An occasional usher was checking under the seats for programs or debris. I was still sitting sobbing gently and my whole body was shaking.  Trying to understand my state the word ‘catharsis’ came to mind. I felt fundamentally changed. The theater as a vehicle for transformation seemed obvious now. What had happened?  The final notes of  Richard Peaslee’s music still hung in the auditorium. Kokol spoke directly to me and screamed: “When will you learn to take sides?” I found this a personal message.


 I had to speak with someone connected with the production. 


Still shaking and with tears running down my face I made my way outside and to the backstage door and knocked.  A stage manager opened it and seemed surprised on seeing a 23 year old woman, clearly in extremis.  “Can I help you?” he said, with concern in his voice.  “I need to speak to somebody in the company please,” I begged.  I expect that my emotional state was justification for him to invite me backstage.  He ushered me down the hall toward the dressing room for Patrick McGee and Ian Richardson, the stars of the play, The Persecution and Assassination of Jean Paul Maret as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum at Cheranton under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade which had been directed by the incomparable Peter Brook. The play was in its final week of previews and I had scored a ticket out of great good luck or by providence. 


Ian Richardson opened the door to his dressing room and seeing me still sobbing, almost shouted:  “What happened to you?”  .  .   .   “I just saw YOUR PLAY,” I blurted out.  

He and McGee actually laughed and then he said:  “Looks like you need a drink.” And he went over to a bottle of Scotch and poured some into a paper cup.  I think I began babbling something about how much this had affected me. I didn’t stay long and I don’t remember much more about that moment except to say that these two world famous actors were very kind to this crazy lady who was still under the spell of their profoundly disturbing and inspiring production.  


It’s not hyperbole to say that this play “changed my life.”  The injunction to “take sides” led me to become actively involved in political action around the civil rights struggle that was going on in the South were I lived.  Segregation was being challenged, and I knew that I had to go back to Virginia and do something to help the cause.  I chose to put together a mixed race acting company to perform a Readers Theater production of “In White America,” a docudrama about civil rights issues.  It was intended to instruct as well as open up the conversation about race.  Just traveling together in the same vehicle provoked stares and the occasional rude remark or gesture.  Lunch counters were still segregated in most of the South, so our little group of integrated players had many challenges.  I had to take sides.


I was in graduate school at the time all this happened, and I was making decisions about what to do with my life. This experience of feeling the enormity of theater in Marat/Sade was the cause of my decision to pursue theater as a career. From a meta perspective, I learned that theater could have the power of atomic fusion.  And so strong was my interest in this particular theatrical event that I chose to write my Master’s Thesis on the achievements of Peter Brook, who was then a rising star at age 43.  Peter’s father, Simon Brook kindly invited me to his home to peruse his mountain of scrapbooks with articles about his son.  Enclosed in this bag is an envelope with a USB drive containing the manuscript of the unpublished Thesis.  


A few years later I met up with Brook at the Roundhouse when he was in the final stages of rehearsing The Tempest.  I made the acquaintance of Yoshi Oida with whom I studied in Paris in the summer of 1984. A few years later I marveled at the magic of Brook’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the spiritual message of his Mahabarata which I saw in LA.


In the nearly half century since I saw Marat/Sade the world has spun on a new axis.  I wonder what we would make of this experience if the play were produced today? I know it still speaks to us.  I have a deep gratitude to Peter Brook for his visionary leadership.   I admire that he has always been a seeker. His work raises the level of the art into the realm of the spirit.  


Thank you, Peter Brook, my own career was inspired by your work.  I am grateful.

With appreciation and respect,


Patricia Ryan Madson


April 21, 2017

El Granada, CA 94018

Saturday, August 21, 2021

Musings on food and the joys of sharing it . . .


Off this morning to the Coastside Farmer’s Market.  There are still a few weeks to acquire the perfect heirloom tomatoes.  And the Cipponeri Family Farms in Turlock, CA have their luscious peaches and other stone fruit in abundance now.  Tricolor corn from the local fields is in my basket today along with some dark green kale, cucumbers, a dozen perfect tomatoes and a loaf of artisanal rye/multigrain sourdough bread.  Lunch today was a slice of that good bread with some Dijon mustard and some fresh ham and a tangy swiss cheese.  A really good bread can make a meal. And, one of the peaches was at its point of perfection.  Nothing was needed to make that peach a taste memory.  “Do I dare to eat a peach?” declared Mr. Prufrock.  Indeed. 


My friend, JD Hixson and I are exchanging thoughts on food and the good life.  He speaks of a Gourmet Paradigm, a mindset around food that involves harmony, evolution, and sustainability as foundations of the philosophy.  Until reading this thoughtful essay I had not considered food to have a “mindset”—but of course, it does, whether or not we are conscious of it.  So, I began to ponder: what are my values around food acquisition, preparation, cooking and sharing?  


My first teacher was a remarkable woman, friend and mentor, Josephine Landor. Her husband, Walter, a highly cultured German gentleman founded Landor Associates in San Francisco, a global leader in brand consulting and design located on a ferryboat docked in the San Francisco Bay. They had homes in the city, Kenwood in the wine country and Puerta Vallarta. My wedding was at their St. Helena, CA estate.  Josephine seemed to have been born with elegant and discriminating taste.  I learned from her a basic respect for and care of ingredients.  When we brought home a fresh head of lettuce, romaine, for example, she always carefully washed the lettuce, discarding any blemished leaves, then drying the leaves and placing them in either a plastic container or bag lined with a paper towel.  The towel would absorb any excess moisture. She kept this in the refrigerator.  So when we went to make a salad in the evening our lettuce was crisp and clean and ready for mixing and serving.  I have continued this tradition and I’m fond of adding a crisp salad to many evening meals.  I learned from Ed Brown of the Zen Center that you could make a great variety of salads by using this basic guidance: 


1. Fresh lettuce or greens (kale, spinach, endive, etc. watercress, etc)


2. Vegetables (tomatoes, carrots, squash, cucumbers, green onions, celery)


                        OR a single fruit

3 Fruit  (apple, mandarin oranges, grapes, peaches, pears, kiwis, watermelon, etc.)


            You can experiment with having fruit and some vegetables together, but not all are happy bedfellows. Best to separate. Tomatoes are technically a fruit, but according to a reputable source:



“Tomatoes are botanically defined as fruits because they form from a flower and contain seeds. Still, they're most often utilized like a vegetable in cooking. In fact, the US Supreme Court ruled in 1893 that the tomato should be classified as a vegetable on the basis of its culinary applications.”



4.  Nuts or seeds  (walnuts, pecans, cashews, almonds, sesame seeds, etc.  Glazed nuts are very nice.)


5. Cheese.  (Blue cheese or Gorgonzola, Parmesan, Asiago, Gouda, etc.)


Hence a green plus a fruit, plus a nut/seed, plus a cheese   . . .  invent your own.


Or, of course, if you have something as precious and seasonal as an heirloom tomato, then perhaps forget all of this lettuce formula.  Nothing beats a ripe heirloom with the tiniest drizzle of a fine olive oil and a sprinkle of white balsamic.  Or simply serve it au natural.


Friday, February 19, 2021

Anatomy of an Improv Workshop Failure

This essay was written on June 19, 2015 but it seems worth telling again.  Be wary of ballrooms

Anatomy of an Improv Workshop Failure

The Tyranny of Tables

By Patricia Ryan Madson



I’m an improviser so nothing really seems an obstacle to me when I consider the location for an appearance.  I have given workshops in a wide variety of physical setups and I’ve always found a way to work around a less than optimal working space . . . until this time.  My husband is fond of reminding me that my anxiety and sleeplessness the night before I’m going to teach or present is just a fact of life.  I can’t remember a time when my phone call home immediately following an engagement didn’t begin with:  “It went great!!  Until yesterday.    Instead my reply was: “It was a disaster.  Everybody rolled their eyes and reached for their cellphones.  I could not find a way to salvage it.”


I’m going to keep the details of this particular engagement anonymous so  that I don’t  appear to cast blame on the client.  As the featured presenter it’s my job to “prepare” something suitable for the client.  This event was a weekend retreat to celebrate the accomplishments of educators who were supervisors and principles in a specific region of the state.  These men and women sit in the trenches all day in school admin offices likely hearing complaints from staff, teachers, parents and children.  They are “where the buck stops” in most cases. This particular event, staged at a very elegant winery complete with gourmet meals and wine tasting, was capped with an evening of awards and thanks.  


For the two days leading up to the awards banquet, the 300+ participants had been sitting in a 6000 sq. foot dining room with fifty round tables facing the podium and  a medium sized screen for the projection of the obligatory Power Point that by law, I think, must accompany all presentation events in the twentieth century.  My hostess had inquired the day before I arrived if I would like to send my Power Point for inclusion to their website.   


Truth be told:  I hate Power Points.  Their linear composition is ANTI Improv, if you think about it.   However, in the past, when I’ve had the poor judgment (or greed) to accept a gig as a Keynote Speaker rather than a workshop leader I have done the occasional Power Point of slides that provide graphic support to such ideas as Say YES,  Try Stuff, Really Listen . . .  etc.   Recently I’ve been creating these mindless backups as little colorful artworks on my digital app. 


Okay, so I sent my Power Point via email to the event organizer and carried my laptop to the event in case I’d need to plug it in.  


I arrived two hours early to spec out the location in an attempt to figure out a strategy for managing a workshop in a less than desirable space. And, by the way, the optimal space for teaching improv is a semi-empty room with a circle of chairs that can be moved and rearranged.  It needs to be large enough that the full group of folks participating in the workshop can stand in a circle or four or five circles and be able to see each other.  This was not the case here.


I should have known I was in trouble when I was greeted with the news that my “presentation” would be held in the large ballroom with the fifty tables.  There was a small ring of space around the perimeter of the room.  I asked my host if it would be okay to move some of the tables to provide an open space to assemble people to do exercises and try things.  The reply was, “no, I’m sorry, we really can’t move any of the tables . . . there is an event immediately following yours that needs the setup just as it is.”  Okey, dokey.  So, we will work with that.  Hmmmmm


My hostess introduced me as an important professor from Stanford who was a “serious researcher” in this field.  (Really, these were her words.) And not to expect any fluffy, airy fairy kinds of games, etc.  Indeed they were to be assured that no one would have to do anything and would not be called on to make a fool of themselves.  Welcome, Dr. Patricia Madson.”  (Quickest PhD in history . . .)


Oh, and when I suggested that the random 89 people scattered at the fifty tables all move closer or together so that they were sitting in groups, she said:  “No, they aren’t going to do that.”  Mama mia.


So, here we go.  Slide one:  “Trust your own voice. “  As I looked out onto the scattering of people all around the room . . . sitting mostly near the exits and walls  I tried one futile suggestion.  “Hello, how is everyone today?  How about those of you sitting alone or in the back to move forward so that we can work together better. “ I shouted encouragingly   About six people moved a few inches closer.  “How will I ever get people to work together in this setting?  At least in a large auditorium you have shoulder to shoulder proximity and a way to “turn to a partner.”  


 I am now milling around the tables with a hand held mike smiling and trying to seem encouraging about a workshop that it didn’t appear anyone was pleased to be attending.   Okay, lets try this:  “Three things in common!”  (This is Rebecca’s great beginning to get things moving and laughing.)  Okay:  GO, find three thing things in common not connected to work.  Go)  Mild roaring for a while.  So then I started going around to each table to get the results.  I told everybody who was also included to shout out:  ME TOO!!    First table:  “Clothes, shoes, we have kids.”  Okay.  So, you all have on clothes!  (Everybody that does too, shout: Me Too)    Two people say Me Too in a monotone.    Next table:  “We have kids.  We like travel.  We have shoes on.”    I continued to try and get the whole room roaring Me TOO over some obvious thing, but it wasn’t happening.  I kept trying to salvage the game and as I roamed around the tables folks just seemed mildly annoyed at this stupid exercise.  Lordy, I am dying here, I thought.  


I wish I could say that I somehow turned it around.  I wasn’t about to simply give up the idea of a workshop in favor of me just talking about improv for an hour.   So, I lead every exercise I could mange to organize with this setup.  I gave up wondering or worrying over what someone without a partner would do.  Most of them used the occasions to check their messages.   I led listening exercises.  I led group YES games, planning a meeting first with blocking, then with Yes-And!  I demonstrated and cajoled the “Reminisce” story game.  Whenever the participants were supposed to be doing one of the partner games I noticed that only about half of the group were actually trying the game.  And once this became the norm there didn’t seem to be any way to get everybody doing anything!   Some would try the game, others looked on apprehensively, a few quietly left the room. 


At the end I said that I wanted to finish our session by giving everyone a gift and I invited them to “see” the gift in front of them.  I asked each of them to open the package and lift out what they found.  When I encouraged them to  “share what you received” at least one person at every table said: “There was nothing in my box.”  Nope.  Nothing. 


And, that’s the way it was.  Nothing in my box.  Mercifully the hour ended and I thanked everyone for their “participation” such as it was.  Lordy how  those ballroom tables can kill connection.  So, be wary, my friends, and tuck some strategy away, or simply announce at the outset:  This isn’t going to work.  Want to join me doing something different?  

Sunday, September 20, 2020

You are Perfect Just As You Are

You are Perfect Just As You Are

In a good improv class you can discover a new sense of confidence.  This happens over time as you and your classmates experiment doing things, creating stuff, making mistakes, picking each other up and moving forward together.  What begins to happen is a growing understanding that you are okay.  This is an ordinary okay.  Playing games together brings out the body knowledge that when the chips are down you have what is needed.  John Tarrant’s said it perfectly:  “What if you already have what you need?”  Experiencing this truth is fundamental to an improv education.  

When we begin to succeed at solving problems on the fly, when we discover that a useful word emerges when you need it we begin to develop “reality confidence”—that is, we discover that we can rely on the world around us.  I learn that when I merge my intelligence with all the incoming data and offers to solve a problem or come up with a useful idea.  Improvising when the stakes are low (in a class, for example) creates confidence in our ability to act “in the real world.”

Beyond the discovery that we can act “on the fly” is the body knowledge that there is always something to work with.  Each of us has a light within.  The Japanese poet Linji said it well with this koan:


There is a solitary brightness without a fixed shape or form

It knows how to listen to the teachings.

It knows how to understand the teachings.

It knows how to teach.

That solitary brightness is you.

That “solitary brightness is you.”   Shine your light.  No one else can. Trust the light. You are perfect just as you are.

Friday, September 11, 2020



Since improv is trending in the media now and in pop film culture I thought I'd say a few words about finding the right fit. If you are considering taking an improv class here are some thoughts on finding a teacher:
I’m fond of saying that selecting an improv coach/teacher is very much like finding a therapist. One size doesn’t fit all. And there are hundreds of reasons to commence a class or workshop with improv in the title, and there are at least as many teaching styles and purposes. And, truth be told, anyone can call herself an “improv teacher.” There is no formal or even informal certification of those who put out the IMPROV shingle. I’ve known a young woman who had taken a single improv class, found it exciting, and then made up flyers to announce that she was teaching a six week class. And, I suppose it’s possible that she had a natural talent for understanding improv and that the class was terrific. Regardless of clocked hours or training and experience as an improviser, the measure of the value of an improv class is often personal. The operative question to ask an improv leader is: “What is your purpose in teaching this class?’ The answer will be revealing.
I recently attended a high level conference at Stanford University where I had taught for some years. The conference leader announced that there would be a session on improvisation following lunch. This pleased me, as a little dose of improv wisdom would be welcome at this rather academic day, curiously, on the topic of innovation. The young leader introduced herself and told us all that she was new to this, that she had never done this game before and was experimenting. Fair enough, I thought. I like it when improv teachers are themselves improvising. We all filed into a large open space in an adjoining room. We were given instructions to find a partner and to face each other and then take turns leading and following while making random movements. (This is the classic Mirror Game used for decades in actor training.) After a minute or so we were instructed to join with another pair making a foursome, still mirroring. “Add some noises,” she coached. This continued until the large group of 60 was in one big circle all mirroring. And, then abruptly, the leader said: “thank you.” It was all over. We all applauded as if we had done something extraordinary. That was the end of it. The organizer announced that the next session would start in ten minutes across the hall.
What had happened? The leader had simply set this activity in motion. Period. Besides “doing the Mirror Game” I don’t think our young leader had any purpose for this odd activity. What struck me was the waste. This game can teach a plethora of life lessons about self-other-power-control, and most of all about attention. At the very least it can be a jumping off place to discuss our fear of being observed or judged. (Everyone feels silly doing this at a conference.) What makes no sense is to simply do the game, sans instruction or debriefing. The game is not improv. We might as well have been playing hide and seek . . . which is at least a proper game. No doubt this young women had been introduced to this game by some acting or improv teacher and was confusing a tool with the learning.
For my money a good improv class has a balance between experience and reflection, with the emphasis on experience. Improv isn’t psychodrama, but failure to take note of the implications of what happens to us when we jump into the pool and try out new ways of thinking and doing is a missed opportunity.
For most of my beginning classes I invite the group to form a standing circle, take a moment to look around at who is in the room and then shake their bodies lightly. This is followed by a game called Sound Ball in which I begin by miming throwing a ball to someone in the circle accompanied by a random sound. “Whoosh,”. . . I shout (pretending to throw a ball) at Tom. Tom is instructed to catch the ball in real time while repeating the sound that I threw. “Whoosh,” says Tom, pretending to catch the ball. Then Tom needs to make eye contact with another player across the circle, and throw some new random sound, miming the pitch. “Burrrumph,” calls Tom, throwing to Adele. Without a beat, Adele, shouts, ‘”Zzzzing” miming throwing to Sam. “Oooops, Adele,” I counsel, “you forgot to catch first.” “Oh, she observes, “right,” and she makes the correction. “Burrumph” says Adele and then, turns back to Sam and continues the new sound: “ZZZZZZing.” And so on.
I pace the game to get faster, and within minutes I throw in a second Sound
Ball, just to up the anti. Everyone laughs as they realize what is happening. “Oh, no, two balls!!” someone inevitably yells out. “Right!” I reply, “you can count on chaos! I want it to be a challenge.”
And on we go continuing to toss and catch noises, and later words and phrases. The game, the activity of throwing and repeating sounds, is simple enough to understand. Most new students struggle with it . . . for a variety of reasons. These “problems” become the lesson. “So, what were some of the issues that made this a challenge?” I ask.
“I had trouble finding someone to throw it to. No one was looking at me.”
“I wasn’t sure what the sound was.”
“I was trying to ‘come up with’ a good sound nobody had used.”
“I was feeling stressed because it was so out of control.”
“I had two balls at the same time!”
“These are terrific problems. They are all natural, by the way. It’s normal to try and ‘be prepared’ when we have to do something. However, if you are using your mind to think of a ‘good sound’ it is likely you aren’t paying full attention to what’s coming at you. Most of us are busy preparing how we will react (what sound to use) and its easy to miss what is coming at you,” I counsel. How much are we missing in life while preparing what we will say next?
Of course, each of us is wrestling with his own demons, and problems with the work varies. A skillful teacher is noticing what parts of the simple process unleashed by the game need attention and correction. What is key here is to underscore that beginning improv work is all about process and not about content. We are free to utter whatever smart or nonsense sound appears. We begin to exercise the spontaneity muscle and execute before we’ve “decided” what is a good idea/word/sound.
Adam Tobin, a former student who is now the head of the Screenwriter’s Program at Stanford had this insight about teachers of improv. Each of us is teaching with a unique voice. The same game taught by different instructors yields different life lessons. Our “voice” in the classroom reflects our values and our purposes. There are many insights that can emerge from playing the same game.
It’s wise to check out the teacher’s voice to see if it resonates with your purposes for studying improv. A good fit can produce profound learning.

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Teaching Kindness

 Teaching Kindness – Improv, a Venue for Values 


On a cool December night, the line outside of the Noh Stage Theater was long waiting to get in to see Awkward Dinner Party, an unusual long form improvisation format with a three-person cast.  The lady standing behind me struck up a conversation.  She wanted to sing the praises of Lisa Rowland, one of the principals of the improv show-- “She is really brilliant as a teacher and more importantly I admire her as a person.  I mean, she is just so good, so kind and so positive.  Lisa is an amazing teacher, and an awesome human being.”  I nodded agreement, mentioning that she had been one of my students at Stanford. We were both fans.


Lisa comes from the crucible of the Stanford Improvisers, a group I founded in 1991.  They have the reputation of being “the nicest group to play with.”  I was always pleased and flattered by that appellation.  More important than being funny, is being kind, nice, easy and thoughtful to play with.  Yup, the SIMPS were the nicest group at any tournament. 


At the heart of our work as improv teachers is the possibility to change the world.  We do this both by modeling the behaviors we want to teach as well as finding ways both indirect and direct to teach them.  Whether we acknowledge it or not all teaching is value laden, so why not teach the virtues our society needs?  Everyone wants to have more positive social and interpersonal interactions, but they don’t know how.  Many of us are stuck in old patterns of reacting.  Improv provides a canvas upon which we can teach people how to listen better and be kinder to each other. 


I teach a workshop called: “Working with difficult people.”  Everyone shows up for this.  And, then there’s a bit of bait and switch.  Once in the room I tell everyone that the only difficult person they can change is themselves.


It’s easy to see that selfishness and self-interest is at the root of many of our social problems.  Everyone wants a more satisfying life.  How does kindness fit into this? Improv can be both a metaphor and a tool to discover a kinder version of youself.  


As a tool the games can be used to lift others up or cut each other down.  If you study comedy, you’ll soon discover that the quickest way to get a laugh is to put someone else down.  “Hay, there, fellow, that’s a nice dog you’ve got there.  That’s no dog, that’s my wife.” 🤣🤣🤣 (a double put down.)


I once taught an offsite workshop to a group of middle managers at a famous tech company in Silicon Valley.  Team building was the subject of our work together. The leader had warned me that they were unable to agree on anything.  And, it seems that improv was the only workshop that they did not reject.  They thought it would be fun at least.


On the Saturday morning of our off-site workshop we all showed up at the fancy hotel conference room, replete with the obligatory deluxe breakfast buffet.  After the mingling about and swilling down coffee and smoked salmon on bagels we got the workshop going.  “If you’d please join me now in a circle we can “let the games” begin.  I often start with a simple game called “Sound Ball” where we pretend to throw a sound (miming the action of throwing a ball).  The person that it is thrown to mimes catching the ball and repeats the sound that was thrown.  Then the receiver throws a new sound to someone else, etc. and the throwing and catching continues.  It’s a very simple game but brings up lots of issues typically.  As we played, I side-coached.  I’d suggest: “Become a good catcher.”  Pay more attention to receiving than to sending something creative.  It’s common for folks to think ahead to come up with an interesting sound when it came their turn.  This act of “choosing a good sound” commonly interferes with the attention needed to catch or field the balls.  So, from time to time in the game I’d cheerfully make suggestions about shifting one’s attention from self to the others in the circle.  


Half an hour in, at a break, the man who had hired me to lead the workshop took me aside to give me some instructions: (I’ll never forget his words.)  “Nix on all that good advice, lets get on with the fun and games.”   He simply wanted to do improv games so that they could make jokes and one-up each other.  They were actually skillful at putting each other down.  Cooperation seemed like some distant dream.  (Think our current political divide.)  Since he was the boss I pulled back on the “good advice” part of my teaching.  Sad really.  Improv could help a situation like this.  In my introduction class I remind us that sarcasm, which is a common form of “clever exchange” is a kind of poison in an improv world. Its function is a put down. It can create comedy, but rarely good-will.  I once saw a bumper sticker that read: :  “Tact is for people not witty enough to be sarcastic.  Sarcasm is for people not intelligent enough to be tactful.” If we encourage or foster sarcasm, we are in danger of giving them strategies for cruelty.


An improv class is a place to build trust and safety. We learn to eschew the easy laugh that comes from blocking an offer


Over time improv can turn a group of normal, selfish bozos into a team of agreeable, cooperative, resourceful bozos.  Self interest is normal.  With improv games we can make interest in one’s fellows into something that is attractive, productive and doable.


What  are some strategies for teaching kindness? 


1.     Status games that focus on raising the status of the other person

2.     Games that focus on “thank you” and “I’m sorry” (Do as a circle)

a.  “Thanks to whom are we here today” 

3.     Random Acts of Kindness Stories

4.     Any game can be debriefed with instructions that focus on ‘taking care of the other person.”

5.     Teambuilding games ( the A B C game—sharing control)

6.     Ball Games can be debriefed to suggest that we “focus on being a good receiver, smile to make others feel good and never correct.”


Have a discussion about how self interest is normal, and how shifting the attention to your partner produces good will and cooperation.


Kindness can also be manifest in the kinds of characters that we play in scenes.  Suggest that characters can have high moral standards.  Good stories often have villains or “bad guys.”  But don’t confuse this with just being stubborn or argumentative.  Keep your humanity.  Chose to play heroes. We all love heroes.  The best heroes aren’t the superhero brand, but ordinary folks. 




Tuesday, August 11, 2020

The Yelp of Yesterday


“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.”