Improv’ing Life

You know those people who can walk into a room and talk to anyone and be the flamboyant keynote speaker in a circle of brand-new acquaintances? Yeah, I’m not one of them.

Correction: I wasn’t one of them. Now it’s a different story…..not vastly different, but enough.


I’ve always been great one-on-one, but put me in a group and I’d disappear. You know how it’s said that the Eskimos have eight words for snow? My dad—a dreamer and inventor who for some crazy reason insisted on having his home-office desk right smack dab in the middle of a household with five children—had twenty-eight ways to tell us to be quiet: Pipe down! Simmer down! Ease up! The list goes on. I’m the youngest of the five, which includes a couple of very boisterous ones. I used to have to tap my mom on the arm when I wanted to say anything at the dinner table…there was no other way through the din.

I mentioned to a friend that Dad probably should have put a yurt or something in the backyard to go work in. He said, “But then he would’ve been an absent father. And you would’ve had a different story.” Well, okay—I’ll take the father and all the rest of it for the story I have.


I went to Viet Nam in 1994 with a group of vets and filmed them doing humanitarian work and going back to their Areas of Operation. One of them had had a tracheotomy (most likely due to Agent Orange), so it was challenging to hear him. He and I had a very similar sense of humor and would often say the same funny thing at the same time….and the group would hear him and not me!


As a writer, I’ve always thought faster through my fingers on a keyboard than I did talking to groups of people. I’m not mousy; words often used to describe me—at least within my earshot!—are gentle, sweet, quiet. There’s certainly nothing wrong with any one of those. The only real problem is when I want to be heard but am not.

So you can imagine my husband’s surprise when one Sunday morning, out of the blue, I said, “I think I’ll sign up for an improv class.”

“Okaaaaaay,” he said. And he was even more surprised when I immediately pulled out my laptop and found an improv class that was starting in just a few weeks.


On the very first day of my very first improv class, the teacher said to us, “The way you do improv is the way you do life. Do you hold back? Do you help others shine? Do you have the whole team in mind, or are you just in it for yourself and hogging the limelight?” What great metaphors for life.

The most important aspect of improv is always saying, “Yes, and….” When we say no, we stop the flow. When we say yes, we’re also asking, “What else is possible?” What another great metaphor for life! “If this is true, what else is true?” “If this is this, then what is this over here in this situation?” It’s staying open and available to greater possibilities in the moment and onward.

My inner OCD planner had to be put on a time out. In improv, we don’t plan—ever. We take the gift of the moment. Also, the point is not to try to be funny. The humor comes in being real.

Another inner being who had to be put on a permanent time out is the hider. To this day, I ask myself from time to time, “Are you holding back?” And if the answer is yes, “Why?”



I’ve taken five levels of improv by now. There are a few moments that stand out more than the rest:

While it didn’t start out that way, the first class ended up being comprised mostly of petite millennials. I’m amazed I stuck with it……I was in something that was going to push my buttons anyway, and being three decades older and about eight inches taller than most of the group just added insult to injury. But despite feeling rather Lurch-like, I finished that class.

After a level-two class, my teacher asked me if I was taking classes to perform. “Well, perform better in life,” I said.

During a level-three class about status, I found myself dragging myself around the floor by my hands—like an Indian leper. I looked waaaaaay up at the few people who even bothered to look down at me. Since I’m so tall, looking up at people is not something I’m used to doing…..other than when my hubby and I attend the odd KU basketball game or the time I was in the security line at the airport behind the CU women’s volleyball team.

During our third showcase, I froze. Holding back much? Yes. In my own defense, I had my hair dyed—I mean done—that day. The only time I’ve been stopped by cop in the last ten years was on a day I had my hair dyed—I mean done. I probably could’ve talked my way out of that speeding ticket (I usually can), but I ended up being snarky with him. I’m just wonky on the day I get my hair….well, you know.

During a level-four class, the idea I took for a little scene was based on someone mentioning how crazy children can get on sugar/candy. I went out on stage and a woman joined me out there. Since I went out first, I initiated the scene. “Sure, Mommy,” I said to her, pretending to take some candy from her hand. “I’ll help you with the dishes.” I pretended to eat the candy and………literally channeled Linda Blair. I didn’t know I could talk that loudly and deeply. I don’t want tell you what I said (it was extremely vulgar), but the class was in shock, especially the woman on stage with me. She’s quite a character herself; in fact, she’s a coroner, so she’s certainly seen some wild things in her time. She couldn’t say anything. I could not stop laughing at the look of shock on her face. The rest of the class was howling.

On the way home, I called my husband and said, “I don’t think I’m ever going to be the same again.” When I got home, I imitated what I’d done. He was stunned for a minute, too. From time to time my classmates mention Satan Child and how much they loved her.

I ran into her recently and asked if it was okay to mention her like this. “Sure,” she said. “And I’m still surprised!”

The biggest lesson—well, perhaps tied with the Linda Blair moment—was the Zip Zap Zop game. You point at one person in the circle and say, “Zip!” S/he points to someone else and says, “Zap!” That person points to another and says, “Zop!” It goes rather quickly and is actually more challenging than it sounds. After doing a few rounds in our warmup exercises for a few weeks, our teacher said, “When it comes to you, don’t throw it away so quickly. Let it come and then give it away.”

It was a moment. It might sound crazy, but I realized how I’ve been my whole life. I want your attention, I realized, but just for a second. When a Zip, Zap, or Zop—in any form, in class and in life—comes to me, I get rid of it as quickly as possible. It’s like I say lookatmelookatmelookatme and when you do I want to say, “Okay, that’s enough. Now it’s time to disappear again.” And then a few minutes later: “Okay, you can look at me again.” But when the attention comes to me, it doesn’t feel like it belongs there.

There are many reasons for this, I suppose. The top one perhaps is that my mom was sick from before I was born, and any attention to me didn’t help her.

Yes, I wanted your attention, but I wanted it to leave as quickly as it came….because I somehow had twisted the idea that it would be detrimental to someone. It doesn’t belong to me. Or it didn’t. Now it does. And to you, too.


Then there was the moment with a fellow during first class. We stood with our backs to each other and got into a character. At the teacher’s prompt, we turned around and faced each other. We just looked into each other’s eyes. His character was sad over something; my character was just love and compassion. I never let so many people see deep into my heart and soul the way I did that day. I didn’t have to look good, sound intelligent—I just was who I really am……a woman of profound love and compassion. The teacher said that he could watch something that real all day long.


During my last class, we had a substitute teacher who said, “When people come to see improv, it’s like they’re looking through venetian blinds and seeing something they’re really not supposed to see.” He also said to always make the interesting choice (AKA don’t hold back).

Then we went on to discuss how the process of most other art forms—painting, writing—is done in private. Improv is public, out in the open. Other art forms have re-do’s, takeovers. In improv you can’t erase the line you just wrote.  My fifth-level teacher said he was born speaking with his outdoor voice. I had to speak in a library voice—someone in the house was sick and dying.



You know that recurring dream? Everyone has one. Many friends say that theirs is they show up for a test and realize they haven’t studied. I won the drama-club award at high-school graduation, which is to say I was in quite a few plays. My dream was that it’s opening night of a play, and I realize I didn’t memorize my lines well enough or we should’ve had more dress rehearsals. With improv, there’s no fear of that dream coming to life—everything is in the moment and real….no memorization required. Acting isn’t even required, really, unless the moment calls for it.

I don’t want a ton of attention. I just want to be heard when I have something to say. Someone once told me, “Sure, you’re quiet. But when you speak, what you say is very wise. People listen to what you have to say. You’re not dismissed like people who just yammer on all the time.” That came as a surprise.

I’m still quiet, but it’s by choice, not habit. We don’t all have to be chatty and boisterous. But it’s fun to be that way when to want to be. I’ll probably never be the loudest person in the room—except when I’m channeling Satan Child—but I speak up. And that holding back thing? I’ll just keep working on it whenever it shows up. It won’t hold me back.

And the journey is just beginning…..



The caption of the above picture, which was taken at my level-five showcase, is “All Hail the Ginger Alien Queen.” I’m the one with the purple shirt and black pants and, yes, the ginger hair. So. Much. Crazy. Fun.