50 thoughts on turning 50: #24 Follow The Improv Brick Road

Carol Burnett Wikipedia

When I was a young girl, I wanted to grow up to be Carol Burnett.

For my 50th birthday, I wanted to do something really fun but different than the standard night out with girlfriends or surprise party. So I invited all of my friends to join me at a free improv workshop. I’ve never done improv, but it sounded like a fun way to celebrate turning half a century.

If you don’t know what improv is, think “Whose Line Is It Anyway”, seemingly spontaneous silliness and frivolity, with lots of laughter. When I threw out the idea, several people said they’d like to join me. But when the time came to actually sign up for the free workshop, everyone bailed.

The general excuse was “I’m too afraid to …” Get on stage. Speak in front of people. Look stupid. Act stupid. Say something stupid. Be judged for being stupid.

Pick a fear, or borrow one of mine. I have a long list from which to choose.

When I was younger, I loved female comedians and actresses like Lucille Ball, Mary Tyler Moore, Marlo Thomas, and of course, Carol Burnett. In fact, when I was younger, I wanted to grow up to be Carol Burnett.

Not be like her. Be her. She was skinny (like me) and had a short haircut (like me, although I doubt her mother forced the hairdresser to give her that super short pixie so she could “get her money’s worth” at the salon).

But more importantly, Carol Burnett had something I desperately wanted: beauty. To me, she was beautiful not only because she had a pretty face but because she was funny. And that beauty made her fearless. Which made her more beautiful.

Maybe it was her ability to step into any character role and make people laugh, whether she was Eunice arguing with Mama or Scarlett O’Hara making a ball gown from velvet curtains. Whatever it is, I wanted it. One year, for Halloween, I even dressed up like the washer woman character that opened her show, complete with my dad’s giant work boots and a bucket full of “suds” my mom made by cutting up sponges.

joanne Oct 1974 as Carol Burnett washer woman (1)

Me, dressed at Carol Burnett’s washer woman. Wearing my dad’s work boots; my mom made me a bucket of “suds” with old sponges.

As we all know, who we want to be and who we are frequently are at odds, and as I grew up my fears generally dictated my life. Fear of being judged, fear of being alone, fear of looking stupid. Where once the seeds of laughter and humor had been sown in my soul, soon the weeds of fear, judgment, and bitterness choked everything positive before it had an opportunity to sprout.

It’s not that I never had fun; I just never let the fun dominate my life. Fear ruled with an iron fist.

So when everyone backed out of the free improv workshop, I went alone. I had no idea what to expect, who would be there, or what I’d be doing with these total strangers. Just going to the class was, at least for me, an adventure far outside my comfort zone.

What came next was a journey I had not planned to take.

How our class came together was pretty simple. In the first free workshop, I met three young men, college students from out of town spending the summer working as interns at a local company. We hit it off. In the next free workshop I attended, they were there, along with a woman my own age. The five of us clicked as if by fate, and we all agreed to sign up for six weeks of classes together.

Village Idiot film project morning shoot 219

Me, Tammy, Dave, Brandan and Matt, on the set of the movie project Village Idiots was doing for the 48 Hour Film Project. They’re all in make up or costume; I was just a hot mess before my shoot later in the day.

The first thing our instructor, Swithun (founder of Village Idiots in Rochester, NY), did was ask each of us what we hoped to get out of the classes. I told him I was looking for a new experience and a way to stretch my creative boundaries. Tammy, who used to sing, said she was hoping to find her voice again. The college students – Matt, Brandan and Dave – had reasons that could pretty much be summed up as feeling comfortable talking in front of people and gaining skills they could take with them as they moved forward in business and life.

Those all have a common denominator: learning to feel comfortable with some part of ourselves. And we quickly learned that in order to get comfortable with ourselves, we needed to get uncomfortable with ourselves.

The field of improv is pretty big – different theories, games, styles – but for the purpose of our class Swithun told us that we’d be learning how to play again. There were no rules; if you’re having fun, then you’re doing it right.

That’s a difficult thing to put into practice. In the real world, if you’re supposed to talk and nothing but gibberish comes out of your mouth, chances are someone’s going to ask if you’re drunk, and if you’re in a business meeting, probably suggest you take a long lunch – at the unemployment office.

But in an improv game? Gibberish is not only fun, it’s exactly the right answer. Our improv games were all about breaking through what’s expected of us and the fear of not meeting those expectations in order to find the place where we realize we’ve already failed, where there’s no wrong answer so everything you say is genius.

It’s a bumpy road. Sometimes it’s easy to play, and sometimes it’s like ripping out your soul for the entire room to analyze. Fortunately, we had a fantastic, supportive class with an instructor who pushed us to our limits and was there to catch our fall. No judgment, no criticism, not even a single “That’s not the way you do it” in six weeks. Instead, we heard “Great! Now, let’s try it this way and see how that feels”. Our cries of “I can’t do this!” or “I don’t know what to do next” were met with “Yes you can!” and “There’s no wrong place to go next.”

If you’ve ever been to therapy – personal counseling, marriage counseling, etc. – chances are you’ll find that in an improv class like this (at least with Swithun as your instructor) you’re addressing the same issues as you would with a therapist, but from a different angle. You don’t need to actually name the issue; it’s wrapped up in myriad other issues that, when they surface, are best addressed with honesty, support and most of all, laughter.

I took the classes to break through some creative blocks in my writing. Over the six weeks I found that those blocks started to fall away, but the roads started leading to other creative places that had never been on my radar. I volunteered, for example, to help with a movie project the improv company was doing and found myself actually in the movie. I enjoyed that more than I could ever have imagined. I also found issues surfacing that I thought I’d put to rest in counseling. I realized that not only should they not be buried, but that, once confronted and understood, could be embraced as parts of my own whole self.

Me on the set of the Village Idiots movie project for the 48 Hour Film Project.  Yup. Me. In a movie. Who would have ever seen that coming?

Me on the set of the Village Idiots movie project for the 48 Hour Film Project. Yup. Me. In a movie. Who would have ever seen that coming?

Everyone made the same kind of progress. Swithun worked with Brandan to develop the confidence he needed to use his voice with authority. Stand straight, hands out of his pockets, shoulders back and his voice bellowed from deep inside his chest.

On the first day of class, I remember Matt speaking barely above a whisper; by the end of classes he was hurling himself across the stage, expressing himself physically with joyful, wild abandon. Swithun gave him tools to better control his body to make it more expressive, and Matt less likely to hurt himself when falling.

Dave is a smart guy and his vast intelligence simmers just under the surface. Swithun suggested that he’s holding back, maybe so as not to be seen as a nerd. He gave Dave permission to be as intellectually geeky as he can possibly be on stage, because his power comes from his ability to draw on a vast wealth of information in the blink of an eye.

Tammy and I are on different paths than the young college guys, and when we asked for feedback, Swithun waved us off for the moment, explaining, “You two are a lot more self aware than these guys”.

As we got in a circle for another activity, I heard Dave whisper to Brandan and Matt, “You’re the Lion, you’re the Tinman and I’m the Scarecrow.”

It seemed like an offhand comment, but I love the Wizard of Oz and I didn’t want to be left out. “So who am I?” I asked.

“You’re Dorothy,” he replied.

It was later that night that the enormity of what he’d said hit me.

I keep envisioning the Cowardly Lion, cowering in the corner, tail in hand, muttering away about his fear of spooks and witches. He was the king of the jungle but with the timidity of a kitten. Only when the time came for him to save the day did he find the courage to speak with authority. In the same way, Brandan is understanding his own power as  he gives himself permission to roar.

Like the Tinman who, when rescued and oiled for the first time, explores all of things he can now do with his body, Matt is challenging himself physically. Matt’s recently gone skydiving and wave boarding, just to name two of his recent adventures this summer, and you can tell he’s enjoying stretching himself with newfound freedom.

Dave is a leader. When you’re on stage with him, you can trust that if you’re stuck, he’ll know where to go but he’ll make you feel like the choice to get there was all yours. That’s the Scarecrow all over. When Dorothy comes to the fork in the Yellow Brick Road and asks the straw stranger for directions, he claims not to know which path to take. But he really does. All he needed was the confidence to lead the way.

There’s no question in my mind that Tammy is Glinda the Good Witch. Like any witch who uses her powers for good, Glinda protected Dorothy and her companions, and encouraged them to use their gifts to right a wrong. I think Tammy’s starting to understand that she has more power than she gives herself credit for – emotional and spiritual – and she’s begun to give herself permission to use those powers to restore balance and seek justice in not only her own life but in the lives of others. Plus, she totally rocks a tiara.

As for me? I’m Dorothy. I started out on one journey only to find myself on a different path, in search of a heart’s desire I didn’t realize I’d been harboring. Along the way, I found new friends with whom I’ve faced obstacles and challenges only to come out on the other side stronger and more confident. I learned that my heart’s desire can take many forms but the quest for it will always lead me home.


I started on one path, and then headed out for a journey I didn’t even know I wanted to take.

The journey to Oz would not be complete without the Wizard, the Great One who sees the potential in his charges but understands that the best way for them to reach it is to challenge them until they find it within themselves. That’s Swithun. Behind the curtain, he’s just a man with great insight and compassion, who knows where we’re going and the best tasks to give us to help us get there intact. Fortunately, without having to encounter flying monkeys.

Perhaps the most important lesson I learned along the Improv Brick Road is this: the journey to find yourself is comprised of a thousand single steps, and is best made with the friends you make along the way.

This post is part of my series, “50 thoughts on turning 50″. Read more here.

Related post: What I learned at my 30th year high school reunion.

If you’d like to try an inprov class, visit the Village Idiots website.


One response to “50 thoughts on turning 50: #24 Follow The Improv Brick Road

  1. Pingback: On the set of the improvised cop comedy, “Midtown” | Rochester Night & Day

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