In the Attic: The Art of Improv

1237bdb7a83c0ba10074c469210c6be3Note: this is the first in a series of happiness chronicles — discussions that focus on why and how interesting people pursue things that make them happy.

 

Two things that go bump in the night: something in your attic and someone on stage doing improv comedy.

For many people, the idea of crawling around in their dark, crowded, and potentially vermin-visited attic is equally appealing to the idea of stepping onto an empty stage with no props, no script, no clue — and only their quick wit to armor them from a cynical audience.

Lauren Bossers (nicknamed, appropriately, LaBoss) is an exception. She bravely visits attics and stages, and far off places in her very agile and very funny mind.

“My mother best describes me as my own best opposite,” says Bossers, a 40-year-old mom with a high-powered marketing role at Oracle. “I’m equally serious as I am silly. I’m a Type B in Type A clothing: relatively driven, but not consumed by it.”

Professionally, the petite, blonde and doe-eyed marketer is a master of the arcane technical details of supply chain software, and wields a grammatical sword with the passion of a warrior.

Personally, in 2012, Lauren was regrouping after a separation and looking for a new way to meet people and learn more about herself.

On August 20th that year, she read the obituary for famed comedienne, Phyllis Diller, who died at the age of 95, leaving the world with a lifetime’s worth of wit and humor about families, relationships and womanhood.

If you’ve never heard or read her work, here are a few Diller quotes that moms from any generation can relate to:

“Cleaning your house while your kids are still growing is like shoveling the sidewalk before it stops snowing.”

“Housework won’t kill you, but then again, why take the chance?”

“I want my children to have all the things I couldn’t afford. Then I want to move in with them.”

Here’s what jumped off the page of that obituary to Lauren: Phyllis didn’t start doing comedy until the age of 37. Lauren was 36 at the time.

“I’d been a shy child: an introvert, by Myers-Briggs standards. In my 20’s I worked hard to overcome that. Now I test off the charts on the extrovert side; and when I meet new people, they tend to think I’m a little insane. But people have always told me I was funny and quick, so I thought it was a good time to try improv.

“ I wasn’t that familiar with improv before doing it. Stand-up comedy is really different from improv: using a script versus flying by the seat of your pants. I had comedic heroes like Ellen Degeneres, Rosie O’Donnell, Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock. But since then, I’ve listened to a ton of interviews with comedians and learned that most do either stand up or improv. It is a rare person that does both.”

Lauren signed up for Pittsburgh’s Steel City Improv Theatre introductory class.

Steel City’s website tagline is: Listen, Commit, Play. This was an appealing draw for the newly-single mom.

She wasn’t nervous about the first class since it was an introductory level and she came armed with a well-honed quick wit. But Lauren quickly learned that great improv requires equal parts verbal and physical comedy: the actors are not supported by script nor props. They need to create both an engaging story and a visual environment using only their minds and their bodies to set the stage for their audience.

One improv game created to help develop that skill set is called “In the Attic.” The first person in the group imagines something in an attic that they need to go and play with, like a doll, a wedding dress, a bottle, a gun. Each person, in turn, plays with something new plus everything the prior people have played with, doing something different with each item. For example: play a game of Russian Roulette, take shots out of the bottle you found, put on a wedding dress, then grab the gun…

This exercise helps the actors develop on two fronts.

  • First, the “yes, and…” priority of improv: when you are on stage with someone else, all you have are that person’s eyes and ideas. You always need to connect with them by really listening to build on the story ideas put forward before you. If you cut off the idea, you kill the sketch. And, ideally, if you are the first person in the sketch, you start on a positive note, which provides a lot more room to grow the content, versus a negative angle.
  • Second, if the actors —like great mimes— can’t clearly physically “show” the difference between each item they are working with, they can quickly lose the audience.

Putting the show into the right context for the audience’s mindset is a third leg to the comedic stool that Lauren experienced firsthand. The date of Lauren’s first show was the night of the tragic Sandy Hook shooting. She doesn’t remember that content for the show at all. “It was incredibly difficult to be funny or carefree that night. It was really tough.”

But overall, Lauren found improv incredibly energizing.

“You get an idea of why performers do it. It is an adrenaline shot. After working all day, you need to get your energy up to take a two hour class. But once you tap that creative energy, it’s almost harder to wind back down. It is exhilarating.”

Today, Lauren’s busy work and mom schedule doesn’t make it easy for her to do as much on stage with her improv skills, but those classes have carried over to her professional and personal life regardless.

On the personal side, she’s met a community of people from millennials to grandmas that she still sees, including one of her best friends that she met at improv class.

Professionally and personally, she’s taken the “yes, and” idea to heart in her relationships and collaborative teamwork.

“The power of validating and perpetuating an idea helps you connect better to other people. It makes you more engaged to try to understand what the other people are and to build on that idea.”

Those lucky enough to be on Lauren’s Facebook page, see the fruits of that collaboration every day, from the string of hilarious give-and-take discussion threads with her equally funny friends, to the brief and brilliant outtakes she shares from her life with her middle school son.

Here’s one recent example:

Adam and I were doing our usual bedtime routine of the NYT mini-crossword puzzle.

Me: Much debated Donald Trump word…

Adam: Bad hombres! Nasty woman! Chinese steel! Chiiiiiiiiina! DISASTER!

Me: Um, it’s “bigly.”

Adam: Good one.

Phyllis Diller has gotta be loving this.

 

Are you willing to share some insight about what makes you happy? Let me know, I’d love the opportunity to chat about it and share here…

Eat, Create and Learn Pomodoro

pomodoro

This week, my company zagged.  Unfortunately for me, I was still zigging away, deep in many interesting projects and didn’t see the course correction coming.

On the flip side, the timing was rather lovely.  I’d just arrived for a week with my husband at the lake house. Working remotely with a magnificent view across the water and of the surrounding fall foliage is a treat.  But it doesn’t compare to the freedom to follow a whim to hop on a bike, go for a run, take the convertible for a spin through the back roads, shop for pumpkins and snuggle up during a rainstorm with a book.

I have a lucky life, and it’s always pretty easy for me to find a silver lining during the occasional freak storm. But on Monday, when this little twister landed on my lakeside retreat, I was struck with a new revelation.  Rather than just indulge in my well established list of go-to experiences, perhaps I could use this time for a little zag of my own. Find some new tricks, push some new experiences, explore my “someday” list.

And so, I’ve started. I plan to use my blog to keep myself accountable to coloring outside my own lines.  Here are a few categories I’ve started with in the 55 hours since I learned that I’ve been freed of my corporate obligations:

Adventure with food. When it comes to eating, I am fearless. I haven’t met much I haven’t tried, or haven’t liked.  My decade of vegetarianism might have contributed to the giddy, reckless abandon with which I now approach food — especially pork products.

Besides eating, I am very accountable in the kitchen for food prep and dish clearing.  But I’ve long abdicated the actual preparation of food to my patient and creative husband.  In fact, when our son was about four, he told some of our friends that in addition to his daddy (who had just produced a lovely mushroom risotto for dinner), his mommy was a great cook too: “she makes cereal!”

So this week, I am taking baby steps toward self sufficiency in the kitchen. Monday, was Red Curry Shrimp (okay, it was with the help of a fabulous boxed kit from Marion’s Kitchen—but I selected and managed not to mangle the seafood and veggies). Last night: jalapeno vegetable casserole (my own making, and therefore meekly reviewed by my spouse). Tonight, I’m counting on divine inspiration for the small pumpkin awaiting its fate on my counter.

Make something tangible (and useful). Confession: my family does a collective groan every vacation when after a few days of idleness, I make my way to a craft store in search of yarn and knitting needles. It is not ever a well-planned initiative (I’ve always surmised that this is a good thing on vacation, because I plan —in detail —everything in my work life). This usually means I find a few skeins of yarn in a color or texture that makes me happy and then I just while away my vacation downtime making nothing in particular. Or at least nothing that anyone in my family would ever want to wear.

So this week, I started with a plan to learn to do more than a scarf or to sew together squares of knitting into something that causes my family to gasp “not it!” when I appear with my finished crafty confection.  Through the glory of Ravelry, Google and YouTube, I’ve learned to do a “tops down” raglan sleeved sweater designed by the talented Carol Feller. Since dinner last night, I learned to read the hieroglyphics of a knitting pattern from RS and WS to kfb, and ssk to k2together and CO. So far, my efforts look to have the potential to actually clothe a human form.

Learn, More Broadly. Ironically, for nearly 2 1/2 years I have marketed learning technology. I’ve written countless articles and blogs and tweets and produced educational videos about the power and potential of new tools to engage business people in more meaningful learning and development. So, along the way I’ve learned a lot about learning. But my own learning has been incredibly focused on technology and marketing.

So this week, I enrolled in a UC San Diego neuroscience course on Learning How to Learn. The professor, Terrence Sejnowski — just a few clicks of a mouse away —is one of the top ten experts in computational neurobiology on the planet.  And I get to learn from him and his colleague on how to train my brain to accept — and perhaps enjoy —topics that have otherwise unnerved me, using a few exercises.

The first tip: the Pomodoro technique. My brilliant professors counseled me and my virtual class that includes a high school student, a Filipino teacher, a Russian marketer and a number of call center reps — that less is more when it comes to learning new, complex topics.  They say that research shows if you want to absorb something into long term memory and build a foundation around it, limit the amount of time you focus on the new information. Ideally, no longer than 25 minutes at a time.

The decidedly low-tech way to support this process: set up your focused learning time (reading, reviewing, looking at anecdotes and visual examples) with a kitchen timer; the most common one happens to be shaped like a tomato.  Pomodoro in Italian.

So far, I’ve got an A in my first Coursera online Learning to Learn quizes.  And I’ve got an appetite from the Italian food mnemonics.

Must be time cook: little pumpkin, I am coming for you!

Looking forward to the next 55 hours.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beginning

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It’s December 27th. The work year has been wrapped. The gifts were selected and exchanged. The well wishes shared. The food prepared and leftovers assembled and stored, beguilingly, in the fridge. One zap in the microwave to an instant replay of our favorite holiday tastes, conjuring the best of our family memories and traditions.

But the biggest indulgence of all is nothingness.  Nothing on the calendar. And a wide open week ahead, to fill– or not–as we like.

Into this wide open possibility, I started my day with a random act that was at once thrilling and terrifying. I deleted my email. Every last one of the work and personal inbox items that veritably ruled my life all year long.

My newly downloaded IOS gave me the giddy-making one button power to finally round up and annihilate the 7000+ ghosts of deadlines passed and the weedy camouflage of junk mail.   I feel liberated and ready to reset that which I’ve allowed to shackle me.

As I get older, I’m realizing I no longer want to be as cavalier about what I do with my days, my life. So today, well into the middle of my life, I contemplate the possibility of beginnings.

I like this passage on Beginnings from David Whyte’s book  Consolations: The solace, nourishment and meaning of everyday words. 

BEGINNING
Beginning well or beginning poorly, what is important is simply to begin, but the ability to make a good beginning is also an art form. Beginning well involves a clearing away of the crass, the irrelevant and the complicated to find the beautiful, often hidden lineaments of the essential and the necessary.
Beginning is difficult, and our procrastination is a fine ever-present measure of our reluctance in taking that first close-in, courageous step to reclaiming our happiness. Perhaps, because taking a new step always leads to a kind of radical internal simplification, where, suddenly, very large parts of us, parts of us we have kept gainfully employed for years, parts of us still rehearsing the old complicated story, are suddenly out of a job. There occurs in effect, a form of internal corporate downsizing, where the parts of us too afraid to participate or having nothing now to offer, are let go, with all of the accompanying death-like trauma, and where the very last fight occurs, a rear guard disbelief that this new, less complicated self, and this very simple step, is all that is needed for the new possibilities ahead.
It is always hard to believe that the courageous step is so close to us, that it is closer than we ever could imagine, that in fact, we already know what it is, and that the step is simpler, more radical than we had thought: which is why we so often prefer the story to be more elaborate, our identities clouded by fear, the horizon safely in the distance, the essay longer than it needs to be and the answer safely in the realm of impossibility.

Email deleting may not be courageous, but it’s a start.

 

 

 

 

 

Summer Skinny-Dipping: Peeling Down to the Barest of Bias

Skinny-dipping vacation; stripping away bias
Skinny-dipping vacation; stripping away bias

I overpacked for our summer vacation.

I realized my excess in accommodating for our annual family lake house vacation when I had to barter with my minimalist kids for some space in their duffle bags. All of my clothing choices were practical, casual and very lightweight to account for the typically oppressive midwest humidity. But the clear breadth of exercise clothes vs. any other category was telling. While I’d like to say it is due to my maniacal dedication to exercise, it was more about stuffing my bag with hope and a passive-aggressive suggestion that I could really use to be about 10 pounds worth of maniacal about exercise.

On this first day of vacation, everyone is settled into our wonderful summer sanctuary, and our clothes are all put away.  But in a morning conversation over coffee with our son,  I realized that I have even more baggage.  Turns out that I packed a big pile of  expectations, along with a healthy dose of attitudes and even bias that I’m not even conscious of on a normal work day.  I think I depend on my well-worn attitudes and biases to be the filters or guide rails that help me focus, to weed out information, ideas, circumstances  and experiences that might sidetrack me from the work, family and friend priorities I’ve developed to enjoy a really wonderful, interesting life.

But with my first day of downtime, it appears that –like my suitcase– I could use to cast off some of my pre-set thinking.  Instead of waking up to my typical list of “to do’s” and a pile of personal goals I push off until vacation to stare down, I want to lighten up. Whether it be about the experiences that I will seek out or the way I receive new information, new music, new news, new food, new friends.  I want to pull off the filters and fold up the agendas and give my thinking a little reinvigorating skinny dip.

My boss, the mother of two small kids, often says it is helpful to think with a child’s mind. She doesn’t mean to this in a demeaning way, she means to cut the clutter and block out the noise, rules and regimen that ostensibly protect our busy lives from chaos but also dull our receptivity. Instead, she advocates opening up and tuning into the potential of each experience.

I did get out and jog around the lake this morning. But along the way, I picked up on my son’s sense wonder at the real down-home friendliness of midwesterners.  And sure enough, with the swelling weekend crowd around our lovely lakeside idyll, came more cars on the small, twisting roads, more walkers, runners, bikers. And I took stock today. Each and every one of them waved and said good morning as they passed. Every one. The buzz I got from my morning run was amplified by the buzz from a slipstream of friendliness.

We feel so fortunate to live in Northern California where diversity, acceptance, intellectual curiosity and tolerance are the norm.  For example, I was awed a year ago at the response in my daughter’s high school, after a young man in another city chose to wear a skirt on a public bus, and was beaten. The next day, the majority of kids in her school — boys and girls alike– came to school wearing skirts in a sign of solidarity: be okay with who you are. I didn’t imagine that this type of social statement would be likely in the midwest, where I lived for four years after college and have visited every summer since with my husband, a Hoosier.

But not everyone in our lovely hometown waves and wishes one another a wonderful day either.

Kindness, openness and goodness come in many forms. And they are geographically neutral.

My daughter, who is logging hours toward earning her driver’s license this summer, got her “Hoosier on” by tuning into a country music station in her late Grandpa’s truck before navigating short trips into town for groceries. The stories that emerged from the dashboard crossed from funny honky tonk pick ups (“Rain is a good thing, because rain makes corn and corn makes whisky and whisky makes my baby a little bit frisky”) to soulful ballads. But they were stories that hooked us like the perch on fishing lines off the pier. Later, as we dipped our feet in the rainstorm-swelled lake, she turned up her iPhone and we happily sang along to a now familiar Keith Urban song…”and I learned everything I needed to know from John Cougar, John Deere and John 3:16.” Simple songs, simple shared pleasures. Nice change from the dashboard duel at home between “old people music” and her occasional interest in a genre that truly makes me feel ancient: “screamo.”

As the Indiana weather turns on a dime from sunny, hot and humid to boiling black skies dumping more rain in a hour than we’ve had in California in a month, I feel both sated and energized by the change in the weather. And the change in the pace. And the tiniest little changes in my own receptivity to “just be.”

Okay, I am a little sheepishly happy that I finished 4 loads of laundry and organized our family’s belongs between the clouds, my run, a few games of dominoes on the deck and my nearly-finished blog post… But you can’t undress bad habits all at once, right?

Watch out midnight lake, I’m coming for you.