Patricia Ryan Madson on saying yes, improvising, and thank you’s

Rohan: I was inspired to read “Improv Wisdom” thanks to Dan Pink‘s excellent book – “To Sell is Human.” I knew there was going to be more to the book than just the principles of Improv Acting. The book showed me that improv acting isn’t an art form but a way of life. We are improvising every day of our lives and that our improv skills play a big role in our happiness. I reached to Patricia immediately, of course, and was glad to meet someone who clearly lives the principles she’s written about.

I had a spring in my step after listening to Patricia and I hope you will enjoy it as much as I did!

About Patricia Ryan Madson

imgShe is the author of IMPROV WISDOM: Don’t Prepare, Just Show Up (Bell Tower, 2005) and a professor Emerita from Stanford University where she began teaching in 1977. In the Drama Department, she served as the head of the undergraduate acting division and developed the improvisation program. She founded and coached the Stanford Improvisors and taught beginning and advanced level courses in improvisation for undergraduate as well as adults in Stanford’s Continuing Studies Program.

In 1998 she won the Lloyd W. Dinkelspiel Award for Outstanding Innovation in Undergraduate Education. In 1996 she founded the Creativity Initiative at Stanford, an interdisciplinary alliance of faculty who share the belief that creativity can be taught. she had the pleasure of teaching Design Improv for the School of Engineering, and has been a guest lecturer for the Stanford Technology Ventures Program and for the Mayfield Fellows Program.

Regularly she is on the faculty at the Esalen Institute, and has given workshops for the California Institute for Integral Studies, the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, the National Association of Drama Therapists, the Western Psychological Association, Duke University East Asian Studies Center, Wellness in the Workplace for BC University and for the Meaningful Life Therapy Association in Japan.

“I am happiest when I am improvising in the classroom, helping to solve a problem or painting watercolor au plein aire.”

Interview transcript


Rohan:  What is your story?  I’d love to understand how improv came about and how you got good at it.  What is the background story to this wonderful book that was 20 years in the making?

Patricia:  I was a drama teacher.  That’s really what my career has been since I was in my late twenties.  I started as an actress and I realized that I love teaching.  I had the good fortune to be invited to come to Stanford.  I found myself at Stanford as the head of the acting program, and my job was to try to train these very smart young people – people who could do anything.  To get into Stanford you have to be really smart.  I could never have gotten into Stanford.  I’m not that smart.

I discovered that they were very good when I gave them a script and what I wanted to do.  They could produce any result if I told them in advance.  If I said to the same actor, “What do you think?  How would you feel if you were in that situation?  What would you do?”

I discovered that they just didn’t have a clue because there wasn’t a right answer.  I needed them to be listening to their own voice.  My students were not very good at that at all, so I had to find some way to help my acting students be alive, be human, be able to be spontaneous.  At that point in my life the idea of improv entered because my tai chi master, a man named Al Huang, invited this wonderful character Keith Johnstone and gave some improv classes.  I read his wonderful book Impro and I discovered that there was a different way to do things besides the plan, and execute, and memorize your lines and do everything by the book. 

I began to play with the improv games and learn how they worked and how they just allowed you to be free.  They became more useful.  My students loved it at Stanford.  It was a class where every answer was right.  They were never wrong.  They were liberated, because more important than the content was their ability to be honest, be fresh, and use what was right in front of them.  These improve games began to help my Stanford actors considerably.

What I discovered is that a lot of my students were not ever going to be actors.  They were in acting classes to be better lawyers and business people.  Many of them came to me and said, “You know, this improve stuff has applications beyond just the acting classroom.  You should teach a class for adults.”

I was invited to do that for Stanford’s continuing studies and then Silicon Valley software engineers and retired librarians and all sorts of people showed up.  I discovered that these improv games that are designed to help actors had an enormous liberating experience for people of all ages and that I started getting invited to come to the school of engineering, the school of design, business schools.  They said, “We want some of this improv.”

And so the story goes from there.  I never set out to become the person who knows most, but everywhere I turned people asked me, “Please teach an improv class for us.  We need your help.”

Finally, the students in my adult class said, “You really should write a book.  What you have to say is valuable.”

I started back in 1989 working on the book.  It took almost 20 years which is odd considering it’s a book on improv.  I should have been able to just dash it off.  But the reality is that improvising is a way of doing something, but sometimes improvisation can take a long time depending on what it is.



Rohan:  What I liked was that there was a lot of stuff that was not necessarily new, but at the same time it was a different spin on things.  One of the more provocative things is “don’t prepare.”  I’m guessing it’s something to be thought of in a bit of moderation.  You do need to prepare, but don’t overdo it and don’t be overly self-conscious.  How do you get this point across to your students, especially the type A students that you’re likely to get at Stanford?

Patricia:  You’re absolutely right.  I really don’t mean don’t prepare.  What I mean is prepare all you want.   Prepare out the wazoo, but when you show up in the room, don’t do your notes.  Be open.  Preparation is fine.  With an interview or with a class, we read our notes instead of looking at the human souls around there.  We use the preparation, the stuff that we have learned, to begin the conversation.

I think it’s partly because we all want to look good.  Everybody is scared of looking silly or looking like they don’t quite know.  The truth is that we don’t mind if someone doesn’t have the perfect answer if they’re natural and honest.  Much more important than getting it right is being real.  I’m a great advocate for being who you are and making mistakes.  I noticed on your website that you’re a supporter of that idea.

It’s not like I’m setting out to make a mistake, or I’m trying to do something stupid in this interview.  What I’m trying to do is whatever I need to do, and on the road to doing that I may stumble.  I may have to correct myself.  I may search for a word.  I’m less concerned about a smooth outcome than I am about being honest and real and trying to answer the question or solve the problem.



Rohan:   This is almost the exact opposite of what we learn in school.  Your class is obviously in contrast to almost everything else that we learn.  What is the hardest principle?  What takes students the longest to get on average?

Patricia:  It may be the idea of giving up control.  When you’re really improvising, you have to let go.  Most of us are working toward a particular, desired outcome.  I want to close the sale; I want to impress Rohan with how brilliant I am.  There’s something that I’m trying to accomplish in whatever I’m doing.

When we improvise, instead of trying to accomplish any particular outcome, we’re trying to make sense out of just the next moment.  I think that’s one of the hardest lessons to learn.  If I make sense out of the next moment, you may ask me a question that takes me completely somewhere else and I’m not on my mark.  We don’t like being unsure.  I think that if you study improv, that body sensation is one of I’m not quite sure where we’re going, but it’s okay because we’re doing it together and we’ve created a sense of trust between us.   I’m free to muddle along, make some mistakes, and also share this whole thing with you.  That’s the difference.  We like to control stuff.  I think that giving up control in favor of sharing and in favor of seeing where we go rather than directing an outcome a particular way is one of the big lessons.



Rohan:  You mentioned that in your class you have some people who are not going to be actors.  Some are going to be business people or lawyers.  How much of improv do you think comes innately, and how much do you think comes from stuff we learn?  I’m always curious about the old nature versus nurture debate.

Patricia:  I think we are natural improvisers.   When we are children we don’t necessarily have to do the perfect plan.  We will pick up a cardboard box and turn it into a house.  We’ll use the materials around.  We’re free to look around and see what’s there.  Improvising is the natural state of man.

What happens is that education takes that out of us.  They say, “No, no.  Lack of preparation is the end of any possibility of doing anything.  You can’t go forward if you don’t prepare and execute.”

Our education gives us another message.  You don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.  Preparing and executing is the way a lot of stuff gets done, and it’s important.  Most of us know that so I don’t have to teach that or reinforce it.  There are times when that’s what we fall back on.  A lot of folks are scared to just give it a whirl.  There is a phrase “winging it” when we talk about improvising.  I don’t know what I’m doing, so I’m just going to fly into the sky.  “Winging it” has a slightly negative connotation.  If we’re really present and really seeing what comes next, the result may not be what we’re imagining.  But it’s likely to be useful and real.  That also goes to your question of purpose.  To what purpose are we improvising?  For example, how might you use improvisation?



Rohan:  What I liked most is that I found it very analogous to life itself.  I think this is what we could be doing all the time.  I do a whole bunch of things such as my blog and I couldn’t do them if I was waiting for them to be perfect.  There are always a hundred things that I’d love to do better, but it’s so much better to just do them because if I was waiting for perfection I wouldn’t be doing this interview with you.  It’s such an amazing thing to be connecting at 7:00 AM here and 3:00 Pm there and getting to know you after I’ve read your book.

 I feel like it’s a way of life and it’s a way of life that I completely believe in.  That’s how improv resonates with me.  That’s why I’m so keen because I’ve never learned improv and I’d love to understand if there are 3-4 things that you tell you students that they can take home or do on a daily basis.  Are there little ways that we can get better as improvisers?

Patricia:  Absolutely.  There are some action items.  There’s a wonderful writer named Robert Pointon who wrote a book called Everything is an Offer.  It’s an improv book.  He says that improv can be boiled down to three things:  let go, notice more, and use everything.  In terms of a daily practice, letting go is an abstract idea.  It’s psychological.  I’m going to try to not worry about the outcome.  Sometimes I worry anyway.

Noticing more is something that we can control and work on.  Here’s a little exercise.  I’m sitting in my office.  It’s a place I know really well, and I know what’s around me and what’s in front of me right now.  I might want to do a little exercise where I close my eyes and in my mind I try to create a picture of everything around in me in as much detail as I can.  I’m thinking about what’s right in front of me and what’s behind me.  I’m trying to make a 3-dimensional picture.  Then I open my eyes and I look around.  I check out the difference between what I imagined and what’s actually here.  I’m often really surprised that the real world is much more detailed and interesting.  I forgot that my iPhone was sitting over to the side.

We tend to take a lot of things for granted.  When you’re improvising you want to be noticing more of what’s around.  Pay more attention, try to add 10% in your capacity to notice everything that’s going on in the world.  We get lazy because there is a lot of stimulation.  The more we notice, it’s like a stock going up.  It appreciates because I’m seeing the detail of the color in the flowers near here, or the soft quality of your eyes when I look at them.  They’re very nice by the way.  Noticing more is an exercise that will help us.

Another thing is to say thank you.   That might sound odd, but improvisers that I teach are totally conscious of how much other people are doing for them, and how much we’re being supported.  Right now, this amazing internet is allowing us to make this magical conversation across thousands of miles.  There are many people’s work that support us right now.  I think an improviser is someone who is always cultivating that muscle of noticing, saying thank you, and being grateful for the many things that we have all of the time. 



Rohan:  I believe that when you teach something, you learn the most yourself.  How has this changed your life?  What are a couple of things that have completely changed since you started doing improv?

Patricia:  One of the things is that my husband and I try to adopt these rules in our marriage.  It makes it a really great thing because the first rule of improv is to say yes.  Say yes to everything.  Most people laugh when I say that.  I can’t say yes to my husband all the time.  But he’s saying yes to me and I’m saying yes to him.  Here’s the rule:  We say yes unless there’s a really compelling reason otherwise.  If I say “Let’s watch this particular TV show tonight,” my husband’s likely to say yes unless he has another appointment, he’s promised to meet someone, or it’s not really possible.

We tend to support each other.  I think that’s one of the ways that improvising has made my life a happier place.  There’s more willingness to try stuff, to do things, and to go along rather than sticking to the preferences that we all have.  I prefer one kind of food sometimes, and he prefers another but we share control over that.  It’s fun.  I’m 71 years old.  As I’m getting older, I think improvising allows me to take more chances.  Why not?  What have I got to lose if I try a new thing, or go for that skateboard?



Rohan:  What are your favorite books that you have read many times or greatly inspire you?

Patricia:  I’m a great fan of a writer named David K. Reynolds.  He writes books on psychology.  One of his first books was called Constructive Living.  He wrote books called Playing Ball on Running Water and Even in Summer  the Ice Doesn’t Melt.  He has a bunch of books with water in the title.  The psychology books of David Reynolds are huge for me.

Keith Johnstone’s book, Impro, was really important for me understanding education and something about the mind of improv.

I read a lot of nonfiction.  I’m a big fan of Dan Pink.  I was just reading a book by Arlie Hochschild about how we are the outsourced self.  It’s the freshman read at Stanford this year and it’s about how we’ve gotten so busy that we are outsourcing our lives.  We’ve got babysitters, matchmakers, and wedding planners.  We’re getting away from doing the things that really make life our own.  That’s been an interesting thing.

I like a lot of current nonfiction.  I also like a lot of the poetry of John O’Donohue.  He’s a favorite writer.



Rohan:  What are some movies or TV shows that you enjoy or recommend?

Patricia:  I’m a little embarrassed to say that I do watch a lot of television.  I’m a fan of Glee, Parenthood, House of Cards, and The Mentalist.  I like watching the PBS Masterpiece mystery series.  I love Downton Abbey and those sorts of shows.  I’m a huge fan of Stanford women’s basketball.  We go to all the games.  We go all over the country following Stanford women’s sports.  I share that with my husband.



Rohan:  What are little routines or productivity hacks that you use to stay productive and happy?

Patricia:  I make my bed every morning.  First thing when I get out of it, I make the bed and I put the pillows up and put the little quilt on the bottom.  There’s something about seeing the room nicely folded that makes my day.

Another thing I do is whenever I use a roll of toilet paper, I take the end and I fold it down so that the two ends go into a little triangle like when you go into a hotel.  The idea of that is that if I finished using it, then someone else is coming next.  I’m trying to think of the next person.  I fold that toilet paper for the next person who finds it.  Sometimes it’s me.  It’s the idea of looking out for other folks.

I love to drink Earl Grey tea every morning and I spend some time every day looking at all I’m receiving from other people, which is a lot.  I love to write thank you notes.  Every day I troll the Internet to see if anyone has mentioned my book, Improv Wisdom.  If they have, I send them a thank you note.  I’m so grateful.

My book is really alive because people have told other people.  There was never any big press release.  Even though it’s Random House, it has been a small book that has been spread around the world by people like you helping to tell the story.  It’s now in nine languages.  They just sold it to a Russian publisher.  It’s an audio book.  I did the reading on the audio book and the eBook.



Rohan:  What is an idea that inspires you that you’d like to share?

Patricia:  An idea that inspires me is to notice and wake up to the gifts.  I think so often we’re stuck in our own shell, our own ego, our own desires, and the things that bother us or worry us.  The most important thing I’d like to tell people is to notice how much you are receiving from other people.  Your life is sustained by people who make energy, the food we eat, and the transportation we use.  If you can fill up with understanding how much of life is already a gift, that’s one of the great things that I’d like to share and pass along.

Being grateful is an art, and we sure need to sharpen our skills – not only does it show your gratitude, but also changes your levels of happiness.. It was wonderful hearing you, Patricia – thank you so much for talking to us!

Real Leaders Team