If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans. – Woody Allen
Your life has no script, and yet much of the pain and frustrations of our days comes from the struggle to apply structure – giving us a false sense of control. Most of our visualizations are negative and based in fear.
We worry that we will be late, we imagine arguments with meter maids, and even more, we cling to these imagined events, even the positive ones, and are thrown when they don’t go the way that we had pictured. But if we can strive to remain present and flexible these symptoms will evaporate.
While simple in concept, it takes practice to create these new habits. Just as athletes must repeat and repeat drills so that sound technique becomes a part of their unconscious muscle memory, so to must professional improvisers. We need a safe place to practice and train ourselves to make better decisions. We need a gym for our spirits. The improv classroom is this space. It is a safe, supportive and ideal place to practice, stumble and laugh along the way. And the adjustments we make there will naturally begin to manifest themselves in our daily lives making the improv classroom less a performance training ground and more a dojo for living better.
In July of 2005, as strangers, we both auditioned at iO West to be placed on a Harold team. And, as fate would have it, we were placed on the same team, The Jungle, and became fast friends. Improv gave us a shelter. It gave us a space to be together and grow a friendship. We immediately had chemistry, but convinced ourselves that it was limited to the stage.And that is how it was for years. Two best friends, working hard and challenging each other to get better and grow as performers and teachers of this craft. We toured the country. We laughed a lot. We made plans for all the things we wanted to do together in the future and still we ignored the elephant in the room. It was easiest for us both to cling hard to the idea that we were just improv kindred sprits and nothing more. But you can only do so many hundreds of scenes as a couple before eventually you start to wonder why.Improv has been good to us.Perhaps that’s why it is so important for us to share it. It has guided our heeling from deep sadness and loss. It has encouraged us to take risks and follow our hearts. By employing the principles of good stage work in our daily lives we have each been transformed in our own ways. Above all it has brought us together and we believe it can do the same for you.
I am shy by nature. As a child my father would have to order for me at a restaurant because I was too fearful to speak to the waiter. I’d whisper my order into his ear and he would relay the message. So you can imagine his surprise when years later he flew to Chicago to see my graduation show from the iO (formerly Improv Olympic) training center. How could that boy, having shown no inclination towards performance prior, be about to take the stage with no script? Needless to say, he was worried for me.
My life changed in 2001. That spring I graduated from Kenyon College and that summer my mother passed away from leukemia. I imagine most college graduates feel a bit spit out into the world after a lifetime of having only ever known the comforting routine of school. That feeling was compounded for me by her death. Not only was I now out into the shapeless, post-school future. But my childhood ended in one clear moment. My sanctuary was gone.
And so I was sad and drifting. But alive and aware that I had too much life left to hope that I might just wait it out. I needed to make a choice. I sat in my bedroom one night and began to try to imagine anything that I truly liked enough to want to do for the rest of my life. The answer that came to me was laughable and I would have dismissed it if I could have thought of anything better. But I couldn’t. Since I was a boy I had always loved the Chicago Bears. So, on that night of deciding what my future would be, I decided that I would move to Chicago and work for the Chicago Bears.
And so I did, sort of. And for none of the reasons that I expected, this was the best decision that I could ever have made. In hindsight it is a sequence that gives me Faith.
In January 2002 I pulled myself up onto my feet. I found an apartment online in a city that I knew very little about. A roommate in a guy I kinda knew from high school and a job in the promise of an internship with the Arena Football League team the Chicago Rush (not exactly the Bears, but you gotta start somewhere). About a week before I made the drive to Chicago I got an email from a friend who had seen an improv show at a place called Improv Olympic and, since I was, “Funny,” maybe I should think about taking a class there. I was in no position to over think such things, so I registered immediately.
Having never seen an improv show, I walked into the beer soaked theater on North Clark street, right next to Wrigley Field. I was terrified. The shallow breaths, shaking hands, limited peripheral vision kind of terrified. I did not belong there and I knew it. So I got up and walked out aiming to catch a cab back home. But about a half a block away I stopped and gave myself some sort of pep talk about how I’d paid for this and what was I going to do if I went home. I knew home meant alone and alone meant thinking and hurting and anything was preferable to that. So I turned around and trudged back in, no less afraid. Fortunately for me class began before I could get up and leave again.
Little by little, class by class, week by week my absolute fear turned into a mix of fear and excitement. My classmates were kind and supportive, if only because they were being made to be. But it worked. I got one three hour a week vacation from my sadness. So I took two improv classes. And so I got six hours a week. And I found myself surrounded by creative, smart, funny kind people. And I started to heal. And over the phone my dad knew something was up long before I did. He would ask me about these classes and I would explain them. But nothing about the exercises that I described seemed as though they should be responsible for healing a broken heart, or offering a rudder to a ship adrift. But somehow that is what was happening and he could hear it.
So a year later he came to see for himself, full of worry for his son who was too shy to order a cheeseburger. The show was great. Or at least I was able to take the stage and produce words loud enough for everybody to hear. And he laughed and I was hooked on improvisation.
Very early on I knew that I needed to teach and share this thing. If it could heal me it could do the same for others and it’s just so fun! But it was not for some years that I would get a chance to. In between I got so carried away by the love of improv that I decided to move to Los Angeles and see if “acting” was anything like improv.
They are different.
But again my leap of Faith was rewarded. I was placed onto a brand new team at iO West called The Jungle. It was a great team. Passionate, committed and like a good rock n roll band, unable to sustain. On that team I met a girl. Her name was Annie and she would become my wife. But it was not nearly that simple, of course…
As a child I used to love to perform for people. I’d make up songs, skits or plays but almost always I wanted them to laugh. When I was in 3rd grade there was a school play I auditioned for. It was for the part of Duck. I would have no lines, just a huge duck costume where I’d run around and make people laugh. I told myself it was big deal and honestly couldn’t think of anyone else who was more perfect for the part. The fateful day of the audition came and went and I awaited the confirmation that I was talented enough to be Duck. Except that I it never did. I wasn’t cast as Duck… I wasn’t cast at all. I wasn’t talented at acting or comedy. At least that I told myself for the next 12 years.
I didn’t touch theater in middle or high school but when I went to college I started to see posters around for an on campus improv team called Absolunacy and convinced my friends to go. It was amazing. Mind blowing. Unbelievable. They sung songs and did skits and best of all they played improv games. And secretly I thought I could do it but doubt flooding back into me. I wasn’t a good performer. My friend who came with me said they were auditioning for new member in the spring semester. So against my better judgment I auditioned and to my shock was cast on the team, it was clearly a fluke.
I performed with Abso for all four years of college. I told myself I wasn’t an actor, but an improviser. An improviser doesn’t need to be good at acting; they just need to react because all choices are good. So when I graduated I decided I wanted to keep doing it. I decided to not go to grad school but move to Cincinnati to perform with a few teams there. Through all the years of group support and love, doubt still clung to me. I was a hack and someday someone would figure out that I wasn’t any good.
Cincinnati wasn’t the greatest, but it provided improv with very low stakes. I wasn’t in a mecca of performing and believed myself to be a big fish in a little pond and that was just fine by me. I worked a waitress during the day and improvised at night. So when I got married and my new husband requested we move to LA so he could pursue a career in the industry, my self-doubt took a hold of my happiness.
We moved in February of 2003 to the great city of Los Angeles and I hated it. I was in the middle of town of performers…of actors. Surely I couldn’t do improv with the big boys. For the next year I sat on my ass, depressed and lonely. I couldn’t engage with my husband’s performer friends and detested how much everyone talked about it. I felt lost and like I didn’t belong.
At the height of my drinking, crying and weight gain I decided something needed to change. Someone recommended I sign up for iOwest classes and so I drove over and sat in my car for an hour shaking, gathered my wits and went into the bar to sign up.
For the next year I submerged myself in improv. I was terrified but excited and soon classes provided confidence. I felt strong in my performance, learned new skills and was put up against my fears. I grew. And even started to audition and book commercials. I doubted I was as good as my classmates but my fear about not belonging seemed to grow less and less.
In 2005, after new friends and new confidence, I was placed on the main stage Harold team, The Jungle. The team was great but more than that I happened to meet and befriend a tall and handsome stranger that wouldn’t one day not only become my husband but also help me to find and embrace my true self.