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.



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.