Monday, May 15, 2017


On a short commuter flight from John Wayne airport back to SFO I sat next to a quiet well dressed businesswoman in her 40's. On board she watched a film on her IPad.  At a half hour into the flight the attractive African American stewardess stopped at our seats for the customary in flight drink.  
"Would you like something to drink?" she asked.  
My companion replied "Do you have cranberry juice? "
"We have crab-apple juice, will that be okay?"
"Yes," she nodded.
"Would you like ice?"
" Just a little please."
Turning to me, she repeated her query.  
"I'd like tomato or V-8 if you have it."
"We have tomato or Bloody Mary mix," she said. 
"I'd like the Bloody Mary mix with no ice, " 

The stewardess began making the drinks.  She put a half cup of ice into one of the small plastic glasses. Then she poured water into the cup with ice. Following this she poured Bloody Mary mix into the other cup.  She then handed the ice water to my seat mate who accepted it with a smile.  I received my drink, thanked her, and the cart moved on. 

After a while my curiosity surfaced and I took the liberty of asking my companion, "Excuse me, didn't you order cranberry juice?"
"Yes, I did." she replied.
"How kind of you," I said, "to accept the water."
"She was busy," she said thoughtfully, leaving it at that.

And I wondered how often it happens that someone accepts a mistaken order out of respect for the convenience of the server?  

Would you have?

What a perfect example of kindness.  

May 14, 2017

On board United 5809

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The influence of Peter Brook

Manuscript of Peter Brook: A Survey of His Directorial Achievements, 1968

December 31, 1965  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.  A link to this ms is at the beginning of this article.

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

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

To all teachers of improvisation: some advice

Teaching Improv

“We teach what we most need to learn.”
Jonathan Livingston Seagull by J Bach

In an interview with Hiromachi Kimura, a Japanese improviser and graduate researcher he asked me: “What’s most important when you teach improv?”  Immediately I said  “You must model what you teach.  You need to be improvising as you teach others to do so.  That is, you simply cannot come into a classroom and “execute your syllabus” or “give your lecture.”  You need to be wild-eyed awake.  (Almost like a man just let out of jail) but focused on what needs to be done now. 

Of course you “have some plan” (I’ll teach the necessity of listening well, of attention to the present moment, etc.) but when you show up to lead the lesson you have to be fully awake to everything that is going on . . . the climate in the room, the acoustics and most especially to who is in the room, their expressions, their names, the complete gestalt.  And then you must teach from this reality, not from any premeditated idea of how the lesson should go.

You have to notice everything that is going on, and then you need to follow your impulses and try things.  You have to make mistakes and correct them as you go. You have to show yourself human in the presence of the assembled students.  Your own vulnerability is one of your greatest teaching assets.  Allow yourself to be surprised and even be thrown off guard.

In the spring of 2013 Dan Klein invited me to give a guest lecture at Stanford.  (Well, it’s never really a ‘lecture’ when you teach improv but you share some improv experiences.)  The class was an experiment to see just how large a class you could handle to teach the basic improv experience.  I think there were 90 students in the cavernous room where we billeted that day. The venue was a full court gymnasium with forty-foot ceilings and a basketball court floor.  Imagine the acoustics. We were kindly provided with stacks of metal folding chairs that we all pulled out and arranged and rearranged as we moved from one activity to another. (Improv learning always happens all over the place and rarely in tidy rows of students facing the instructor and a chalkboard.)

To speak with 90 students siting on metal folding chairs in a cavernous room was already a challenge.  After playing a listening game in partners I reassembled the group into a series of seating rows in an oval.  I tried to get all of us as close together as practical so that my voice could actually be heard. I was standing in front telling a story about how True Fiction Magazine (a top end professional improv troupe) would routinely practice repeating long stories back to each other, verbatim, to stretch their memory muscles, when a four inch dragonfly lit on my left arm.  And sat there. It was unexpected and I stopped mid sentence to observe the insect. For what seemed an eternity we all starred in silence at the wonder of this creature and its audacity to interrupt my lecture.  It was a stunning moment. 

A year later a student from that class, a journalist, wrote me a note thanking me for my teaching and he mentioned the incident with the dragonfly.  He reflected that my stopping everything to attend to that little winged fellow taught him more about the value of attention than any encyclopedia or power point.

We must be improvising when we teach.  It’s the only way.  We must trust reality and respond to it freshly.  We must allow insight/inspiration to come through us.  We must model what it is to change course, make discoveries, make mistakes, learn things as we go. When you are teaching/speaking from this vantage point you are alive and open to inspiration.  So, go ahead and make your lesson plan, but then tuck it away in favor of showing up and being there 100%. Remember that you already have what you need.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Everyday life is the miracle

Everyday life if the miracle.  Hyperbole Abounds
I’m here to remind us that everyday life, ordinary reality IS the way. As we slip into 2017 I take stock of the “world according to popular culture.” Film and television is dominated by Superheroes, magical creatures, alternate realities, time-travel, inter and inner planetary adventures, hyper-explosives, mega bad guys and even a new President who is a Reality TV star. We all seem to be heading at warp speed into some cataclysmic and futuristic future, if you are to believe movie trailers. 
The depth of color of my Earl Grey tea, and the texture of the litter as I clean the cat box, along with the sound of our grandfather’s clock ticking can easily get lost as our minds are lured into the fantastical or the glittery.
I’m here to suggest that the miracle is not superpower but rather running water and raindrops, fresh granola and milk, aspirin and duct tape, free education and taxes. To be alive in this twenty first century is the true miracle.
We know that distraction is the enemy of purposeful living. If it’s shiny, and it moves or has a tiny red dot signifying “I’m contacting you,” then we jump. The expansive leisure that I enjoy in retirement is even challenged by my Facebook and Twitter feeds. So what can we do?
Train your mind to notice the gifts. Take a fresh look at what is around you, who is around you, what systems are in place that support you. 
January 3, 2017