Yes, and…

If it works on stage, it works off stage — life lessons from improv

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Steve Wilder, owner and founder of Voodoo Comedy Playhouse in Denver, instructs students during a Tuesday night drop-in improv class.
Caitlin Rockett | Boulder Weekly

In improv — that’s improvisational theatre, but who says that? — there are no two stronger words used in tandem than “yes, and… .”

What many disciples find in the Church of Improv is that what’s helpful on stage is even more useful off stage.

You see, “yes” validates everything a person just said, while “and” says, “I’m going to help you build this dream you’re putting together on stage.”

Not only is your idea good, you’ve got a helping hand in building it. It’s a phrase that embodies validation and support.

We live in a world of “no, but… ,” a phrase that stifles our creativity and suggests our ideas are unworkable. How different might our world be if we supported each other more, validated our well-intentioned yet unformed ideas and nurtured them into fully shaped actions?

‘Yes, and… ’ is a core principle in improv. It’s the name of a book by a couple of executives from Second City improv comedy theater. It’s become a business mantra across vocations and for at least one student in Voodoo Comedy Playhouse’s improv classes, ‘yes, and… ’ was, in some ways, a life-saving axiom.

Courtesy of VooDoo Comedy Playhouse
VooDoo Comedy Playhouse in Denver

     

Jane is gregarious. She laughs a lot. She makes jokes easily. She loves role-playing games and board games. But it’s taken a lot of work to unearth this expressive side of Jane.

Jane suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. (In order to better protect her, Jane is a pseudonym.)

She approaches the conversation about her childhood with caution at first, calling it “really rough.”  She describes her mother as controlling and manipulative, her father as physically and emotionally abusive.

“There were many times where I remember feeling like I was not going to make it,” she says. “I was pretty sure he was going to kill me on a couple of occasions, not intentionally but just beat me to death.”

She describes her father engaging in emotional incest, seeking support from Jane that he should have turned to another adult for. It’s a dynamic that occurs often when an adult marriage or relationship is brittle or broken, when a parent is lonely.

“He would tell me things about how my mom wasn’t putting out, and things like, ‘When you get to that age, make sure you have fun with your husband because he’s gonna want it,” she says. “It was almost like he was complaining to me as his wife about his sex life.”

Jane says she felt like an object in her home, just a prop for the enjoyment of others. She found herself seeking relationships that mimicked the dynamic she had with her parents — she sought the kind of love she knew.

For a while she says she held onto the notion that she could mend her relationship with her family if she could just “fix” herself.

“The original goal was maybe once I get my head on straight I’ll be able to talk it out,” she says. It never worked. The same patterns resurfaced. The wound reopened, salt poured in.

It was only through extensive therapy that Jane realized she had to cut ties with her family, but the damage was done. She suffered from nightmares and insomnia, severe social anxiety and depersonalization disorder, a dissociative disorder that prevented Jane from recognizing herself in mirrors and photographs. More than that, Jane couldn’t even recognize herself as human.

“You lack any confidence in your life and you just feel like you’re shit and a complete failure and you can’t do it,” she says. “It made it so that I didn’t really want to go out on the weekends or when I was done with work. I didn’t like living life, and not because I didn’t want to live life, but I was just like, I’m going to fuck up living.”

She wasn’t completely without a social life; a group of friends often got together to talk around a bonfire and Jane would join, but she never saw herself as part of the group. Her fear of saying or doing the wrong thing rendered her silent much of the time.

She wasn’t living so much as existing.

Then one day a coworker made a gentle suggestion: Jane should take improv classes. Jane dismissed the idea; her social anxiety was just too high. But her colleague wasn’t ready to let it go.

“The next day he came back to my cube and said, ‘OK. I talked with a couple of people in the improv community. I asked all of them and they say improv is probably one of the best things you can do for social anxiety.’”

Even if it was subconscious, Jane decided it was time to live her life. In late October 2016, she signed up for her first improv class at Voodoo in Denver.

     

Steve Wilder, a veteran of the Los Angeles improv scene, founded Voodoo in 2011.

“I can’t image my life without improv at this point,” he says. “It changed my life and gave me a new direction that I never could have foreseen.

Steve Wilder, founder of VooDoo Comedy Playhouse in Denver, instructs a Tuesday night drop-in improv class.

“I started to apply the concepts in improv to my life offstage and I discovered that there were a lot of things in my life that I just wasn’t happy with. Things that I didn’t want around, people who were … what’s the word … taking advantage, etc. So I said I’m really going to start paying attention to my life the way I pay attention to my improv. When that happened I ended up moving to Colorado and I opened an improv theater. I’ve gotten to do and see all these cool things and cool people just because I said, ‘This is where I am.’ I also have the ability and the responsibility to respond and go, ‘No things don’t always have to be this way. I have the power to change them.’”

Over the years, teaching across the country and internationally, Wilder has seen people come to improv classes for endless reasons, not least of which is to just have a good time. People want help with their acting careers; comics want to flex new muscles in their stand-up routines; workaday folks want to find more flexibility in their lives; and people like Jane come to face down fears.

“Improv for me is about being honest, truthful and real,” Wilder said at a Tuesday night drop-in improv class at Voodoo a couple of weeks ago. “I don’t want you to worry about being funny. It’s about having fun. It’s about being engaged. The more engaged you are, the more fun you’re gonna have.”

He asked the group of about 20 what they were there for, and sure enough, people were looking to “be more present,” to shake their fear of public speaking, to hone their acting skills and to just enjoy a birthday evening with friends.

A few exercises in, it’s clear not everyone’s a novice; there were some old hands on deck, like Brian Mulligan.

“There is such a generosity of spirit about the place,” Mulligan says over coffee a few days later. The New York native is also a product of LA’s improv scene but, like Wilder, he picked up and moved to Colorado in 2011 to find some respite from the “coldness” of LA.

Brian Mulligan (right) works a scene with a partner at VooDoo Comedy Playhouse in Denver.

“Improv gives you a place to be heard without force,” Mulligan says. He discovered improv while taking acting classes. He was drawn to the flexibility, the immersion in the present moment.

“We’re all at some level nomads,” he says. “I work by myself as a graphic designer in front of my computer all day. I think that’s what draws me to go so regularly. Whatever we do, we walk around with all these sectors of our lives: family, work, friends, financial. When people come into an improv group there has to be a softening. For the next hour and a half or two hours this is my group. We have to find a way to be as one.”

There are no absolutes in improv, Mulligan says; there’s no right way to do it, no wrong way. It doesn’t have to be transformative — that puts a heavy weight on it, he says — though it is for many people.

“We’re living in late-stage capitalism,” he says. “It’s kind of grim out there sometimes. Being a freelancer and having those moments of [thinking], ‘Good Lord, how am I going to keep this vehicle going,’ it gives you that playtime that releases the pressure. It gives you a sense of comfort that things will work out because they worked out in my scene last night.”

     

Jane wasn’t sure she’d come back to improv class after that first session in October 2016. She drove home shaking. No way she was going back. Then she remembered she’d already dropped $150 on the eight-week course.

Back the next week she went.

Jane was three weeks in when the power of improv took hold.

It was actually an exercise Jane hated — the puja circle — that tipped the scales for her.

The puja circle is used in religious ceremonies by Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists and others, often to open practitioners up to otherworldly wisdom. In improv, it does kind of the same thing — it connects you to the people around you and to something altogether larger.

One group forms an inner circle while a second forms an outer circle. An instructor gives a suggestion, and one circle speaks on that topic to their partner in the opposite circle.

Instructor Nick Trotter was leading class the day Jane had a breakthrough.

“We had an odd number of students and so Nick jumped in for it,” she says. “I remember us looking down and I remember hearing Nick say, ‘This time when you look up, the people on the inside’ — which I was — ‘you are going to talk to the people on the outside about your parents.’

As soon as I make eye contact with Nick I said, ‘My parents abused me to the point of PTSD,’ and he just stopped me right there; the people who are listening aren’t supposed to be saying a thing. He just stopped me and goes, ‘Make something up … be honest to your story,’ and I made up this awesome story about the family I would have had if I dreamed up my childhood. He kept eye contact even though I’m shaking. He smiled and nodded through the whole thing. Just seeing that sort of support from the teacher, I started recognizing it from the students. I realized I laid a bombshell on the teacher and he didn’t freak out, he didn’t get scared, he wasn’t like, ‘Oh, damaged goods.’ He told me after class, ‘I just want you to know you’re in a good spot for this.’”

Jane is now in level four improv classes at Voodoo. She says she’s learned who to trust in her life — her family were “no, but…” people, while her bonfire friends consistently supported Jane with various forms of “yes, and…” — and she’s overcome a lifelong stutter. Now when she’s somewhere like the bookstore, in need of assistance, she sets a scene in her head like she would at improv class. Scene: bookstore. Character: a customer. Scene partner: a clerk at the store. Her scene set, Jane lets the conversation flow, free of fear.

On the last day of her level one class, her instructor asked people to share what they liked the most about the course. Jane’s answer was deceptively simple.

“All I said to them was, ‘I don’t stutter anymore.’ I said, ‘Thank you for being a part of this healing,’” she says. “The underlying thought was to know that you won’t be smacked when you talk, to know that you have a voice and you deserve to be heard — for someone who grew up hearing that children are better seen, not heard, you’re the object in this family, Jane you don’t get a voice — to know that these words that come from my mouth have meaning to other people, they’re not just white noise, to learn that was unbelievable.”