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All I Need To Know I Learned At Improv Class

Photos courtesy of Jolanta Young. Let’s Connect on Instagram!

On a cold, damp, March evening in downtown Minneapolis a baker’s dozen of students gathered on the second level of a narrow building that houses the Brave New Workshop’s Student Union to learn improv. The Student Union is situated across the street from the Brave New Workshop’s theater on a diagonal that reminds me of crossing streets kitty coroner. Only neither building is really on a corner.

Class began with warm-ups and games. We shook out our hands and feet to an 8-count while making eye contact. We formed a circle and played Zip, Zap, Zop. We formed two lines. One line held invisible boxes to gift to the other line.

“What’s in the box?” “A burnt marshmallow.”

“Thanks and I’ll bring it to my favorite camp counselor! She’ll be so proud.”

It was our introduction to the essential improv concept and building block, “Yes and…”

We each sat down with one other classmate to play an imaginary board game without speaking to one another. Rules had to evolve as each person brought new information to the game.

Each game built on the next. We exercised our listening, our ability to focus, on giving to others in the class.


As the games went on, our main instructor, David Kappelhoff asked, “What are the rules of the game that we agree to? Can the rules evolve?”

Most of us nodded yes.

I thought to myself, “What rules in my life have I established that don’t work?” Ineffective and unnecessary rules exist. They exist for all of us.

Mine have been:

  • I didn’t finish college, so I don’t deserve to do work that inspires me.
  • Putting myself first is selfish, so I have to put myself last.
  • My skin isn’t clear enough, I’m not skinny enough, and I’m getting too old to pursue acting as a career.

“What rules in my life haven’t I established that I should?”

My new rules are:

  • I want to learn all I can about acting and writing, so I better study every day.
  • I only have one life to live, so I better spend time each day working on projects that inspire me and make me feel alive.
  • I’m getting older, so I better pursue acting as a career now and work on feeling good about my looks. I do receive a fair amount of unsolicited compliments.

When I need to give myself a pep talk, I tell myself a phrase I read in The Passion Test, “I’m as good as the rest, not better than the best.”

When I feel guilty, I remember the words of Howard Thurman. “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

When I notice myself getting angry about something, I now ask myself, “What’s the rule that says I have to be angry about _____?” Then I think about whether or not being angry when _____ happens is a rule I want to follow.

Make Strong Choices!

Before we started scene work, we focused on being able to finish these beginnings of sentences: I am, I need, I want, I feel. “No one can argue with you on these points,” said Kelly Sheehy, the Teacher’s Assistant.

We did scenes where we had to stick with one of these emotions throughout: Mad, Sad, Glad, Afraid.

Limiting the choices helped us make strong choices. Our character couldn’t be kind of upset about this thing our scene partner’s character did. If the character I came into the scene as was afraid, my character was afraid of every element in the scene.

As a writer, I have struggled to make strong characters. I’ve been great at writing compelling, broken, needy characters. All of them totally inept at making strong choices. Perhaps the characters I wrote before so much of my life happened made strong choices. If they did, the memory of it is so distant, I’ve forgotten. When I was young, I made strong choices. I ran away to New York City when my parents tried to take theater away. Years passed. I stopped making strong choices. I took theater away from myself. I even married a man who professed to hate actors knowing that I loved theater.

A stubborn creator within myself was strong enough to fight through the years of wimpy choices. I held onto the desire to take improv classes at the Brave New Workshop for more than 15 years. I’m with a man brave enough to take the improv classes with me. And by golly, if I can make the strong choices to do what I love, I can create characters able to say: I am, I need, I want, I feel.

Stories are told one word at a time!

We played storytelling games. During the games, one half of the class would stand while the other half sat. Those standing, did the storytelling. While those sitting served as their audience. Someone in the audience would come up with the topic the story was to be about and two characters.

In the first storytelling exercise, each person standing could say one word when it was there turn to build the story. Until the person ahead chose their word, the person after couldn’t know what word they should choose. From the exercise, I noticed an impulse to know what happens next, to anticipate it, and to go there before taking the journey there. When limited to one word and only one word each time the story baton is passed, the only choice is to be patient and let the story build. People read stories and see plays to enjoy the journey the characters take. If we rush to the arrival as writers, actors, or directors, we’re cheating our audience out of the fun.

I also learned…

To not hesitate. To follow my feet. To take care of myself in a scene. To call others out on their bullshit.

Originally published at on May 24, 2017.

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