marriage & life lessons from improv

4 Rules of Improv  Never say no. Don't ask stupid open-ended questions. Always say "yes, and..." Make your partner look good. Jonny and I did most of this, but we were in a constant interstellar battle for the spotlight. We were good at story development and setting stakes and creating a compelling story. On our own, we were individually hilarious. (Have you met us? We still are. And humble! Boom.) But we were in a constant tug-of-war with our characters. We were into making ourselves look amazing.

I met my husband in a theater arts class in high school. It was a first hour class and I’d stumble into my seat in West High’s little theater just before the final warning bell rang. I secretly wished we’d be numbered off in the same group for our cavemen skits because even though he was loud and not my typical bro-type there was something sweet and cute about him. And also he was funny. (Guys, never underestimate humor when it comes to wooing a girl. Trust me on this.)

Drama runs in my veins. My parents noted this when I was young and enrolled me in drama summer camps for their sanity. I belted out show tunes and wrote skits and performed a questionable dance to Everybody Wants to be a Cat. I graduated to the community children’s theater big leagues, played an always-on-time rabbit in Winnie the Pooh and morphed into a goateed dwarf in The Hobbit. I loved the read-throughs and the long practices in the big building downtown. I liked ordering stale Gardettos in the community theater lobby and gathering on the masking tape-marked floor to hear the director’s notes, scribbling stage directions in my script’s margins. More than anything, I loved becoming someone new — someone or something I could never be in real life.

The stage gave me a way to fuel my creative energy. It helped me learn the power of collaboration and what a good leader looks like. It showed me that nothing happens well without a giant team working together.

So, back to high school Kayla. A year after the class that introduced me to my future husband, me and that awkwardly tall, overly loud guy were thrown into a improv group together. Our mutual friend was also in our trio, and I’m pretty sure she had a crush on Jonny that only made it kind of weird. She was our straight man, and Jonny and I battled for the spotlight.

I’m a big fan of improv. Learning improv makes you a better spouse and coworker and human.

3 Rules of Improv

  • Don’t deny and never say no.
  • Always say “yes, and…”
  • Make your partner look good.

Jonny and I did most of this, but in the beginning, we were in a constant interstellar war. We were good at story development and setting stakes and creating a compelling story. On our own, we were individually hilarious. (Have you met us? We still are. And humble! Boom.) But we were in a constant tug-of-war with who could have the bigger character. We were into making ourselves look amazing.

Where was I going with this? Oh, something about give and take and marriage? Yeah, that. Because what I forgot to mention is that in that last rule of improv, you look good when you make your partner look good. Otherwise you look like a scene-stealing-me-monster, and that’s not great on stage or in marriage or life.

“Improvisation is like the military. You leave no man behind. It’s your job to make your partner look good and if you are afraid to look stupid you should probably go home.” (Amy Poehler, Yes Please)

When you’re creating an improv, you have to band together with your little tribe of people to tackle an unexpected problem. There’s no script and you can’t overthink anything. You stand (and sit and skip and tuck and roll) confidently and stay committed and keep eye contact and you use every bit of grit you have to tackle the tough stuff when the stakes are high. You do a lot of listening and you just keep moving and you maybe make people laugh in the process.

“Looking silly can be very powerful. People who are committing and taking risks become the king and queen of my prom. People are their most beautiful when they are laughing, crying, dancing, playing, telling the truth, and being chased in a fun way.” (Amy Poehler, Yes Please)

I recently read Amy Poehler’s Yes Please and I feel like I love her. (If you like funny memoirs and salty language doesn’t scare you, go order this book now. This is a hot tip, and for that, you are welcome.)  I mean, we have a lot of common. She hosted the Golden Globes, I hosted the West High talent show. She has an Emmy, my teenage peers voted me Best Actress ’06. Need I go further? Anyway, Amy has her roots in improv and she sums it up like this:

“…to be a good improviser you have to listen and say yes and support your partner and be specific and honest and find a game within the scene you can both play.” (Amy Poehler, Yes Please)

The secret to improv really is the secret to marriage which really is the secret to life.

While Jonny and I aren’t acting in an improv troupe on stage right now, we’re certainly still honing our craft.

If performing improv together isn’t changing a squirming toddler’s poop-explosion with a lone wipe in the back of a car in the middle of a Cracker Barrel parking lot in the dead of winter, I don’t know what is.

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12 thoughts on “marriage & life lessons from improv

  1. First of all, Amy Poehler is number one on my list of people I want to have lunch with. She has this ability to make you feel like she is speaking only to you, and that you’re best friends.

    While I never did improv (I’ve always been way too shy, but believe me, I’m actually really hilarious), this is SO true! It’s so easy to be selfish, and want everything to be about “me me me.” But in the end, a successful marriage is two people doing their best to make one another look good and succeed.

    1. Kelly, YES. What is it about Amy (yeah, we’re on a first name basis, whatever) that makes her writing so accessible? I think she’s just authentic and real.

      If you want to get weird, you should totally try improv. There are strangely a lot of shy folks who do it — because you don’t have to feel self conscious — it’s the character being a weirdo, not you! Haha. 🙂 Thanks for chiming in, lady! xo

  2. I can definitely relate to your appreciation of acting, though I never did too much improv specifically, I can definitely see how the skills involved relate to skills necessary in marriage!

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