What’s improv got to do with it?

Anything is possible

A couple of years ago I took an improv class with a talented Baltimore actor named Bruce Nelson. I have seen Bruce in several local plays, and always enjoyed his acting. The characters he has brought to life include an elf based on David Sedaris’ memoir of working as a Macy’s elf at the flagship New York store on 34th St. Because I wanted to feel a little looser in front of an audience — I am studying drama in education — I decided I needed some actual training in the art of acting. Improv seemed like the logical place to start. It’s improv, right? How hard could it be?

I walked into the darkened theater, hoping to slip in quietly because I was a few minutes late. Bruce was going over the attendance list and checking everyone off. “You must be Ann,” Bruce nodded in my direction. I slid down in my seat and grinned as I slipped off my coat.

Eclectic is the word that comes to mind when I think of the 20-35 people who made up my classmates. Most of them were a good bit younger, and there was a mix of men and women, though we outnumbered the men by about 3:1. Bruce began the class by going over the rules of improv — the first and most important rule is to say “Yes, and…” Simple enough. Whatever your partner says or does, you must say yes, and then build on it. Hmmmm, that could make for some interesting scenarios. I squirmed a little in my seat and hoped I wouldn’t have to say yes to anything too outrageous. As it turned out, Bruce’s ground rules worked so well that everyone enjoyed the surprises that came along with our agreement to “Yes, and.” Surprises like creating 10 lines of dialog with only a beginning and an ending line….you had to make “I love peanut butter,” and “The pope would never approve,” work in your scene. Or create a relationship with a passenger named Zeb knowing only that you were in a car going to work and your name was Mathilda.

Thinking back over other theater-related experiences, I had encountered some improv before Bruce’s class when I went through the Creative Emergence Process with Michelle James. In this program, no matter what we did, Michelle smiled and said “Yes, and…” whenever we said “No” or hesitated with “But.” She even challenged us to eliminate the word but from our vocabulary and replace it with and….Try this exercise and see how changing your words can actually change the way you are perceiving the world. Saying “And” opens doors, affirms another person, creates a feeling of flow. Saying “But” on the other hand, shuts a door, marginalizes others’ opinions, and negates possibility. Just give it a shot for a day, and you’ll be amazed at how many opportunities come your way for changing your response.

“Yes, anding,” as we call it in improv, has had a powerful impact on my life. I say yes to all kinds of opportunities in the course of a business day. I think of this practice as being similar to following new roads on a map – You just might find your dream-house as you wander in unknown territory. I said yes to a friend when he asked me if I was interested in writing a paper on journaling in business education. The topic was somewhat new to me, and I knew I’d learn something. The real impetus was the possibility that the paper, if accepted, could land me a trip to Madrid and the opportunity to present at an international business conference. My inner cynic snickered a little every time I worked on the project, and my shining optimist won out and finished the paper on time, sending it off with grand hopes.

The deadline for acceptance notification passed. One day late, then three…finally, I got an acceptance email and celebrated with my co-authors, Alexei Mateev and Rick Milter. I thought I’d be presenting with Alex. However, about a month before the conference, he accepted a free trip to China – once he determined that I would be all right to present alone. “Yes, and…” I thought, “I’ve never done anything like this before.” Excitement mixed with some jitters as I realized what exactly I’d said yes to. Presenting a paper at an international business conference in a foreign country…..My shining optimist is sitting tight, patting my hand, and whispering, “Yes, and you’ll be fine. You can do this. How exciting!” I’m glad there is room for her in my carry-on.