Monthly Archives: March 2012

You know.


My improv teacher hounded us the other day:

“You don’t ‘think.’ You know.”

She had asked a woman who was preparing to go onstage, “Who is this person to you?”

“I think he’s my fiance.  I think we just had an argument.”

But in improv, there is no script.  We are our own playwrights.  When we make a decision, that decision is truth (re: Respect one another’s realities).  We need to make statements and stop being so wishy-washy.  The audience is looking to take our cue, so we need to be bold and confident when we assess the situation.


This reminds me of something I’ve realized about the way women articulate ourselves.  I scoured the psychological literature (and some of the sociological literature), but surprisingly and unfortunately, I can’t find anything about this.  However, I’m not the only one who’s noticed; the web has a few forums where people have discussed it:

Women often preface their thoughts with, “I think,” or “In my opinion.”  They end their statements with, “you know?” and litter “right?” throughout their speech.  If you’re saying it, we know it’s your opinion – you are not an encyclopedia.  If we are following you and not asking questions, then yes, we know what you mean.  You don’t need to seek reassurance throughout your speech.

It frustrates me, because it makes women seem unsure. Subordinate. Like they lack confidence.  And I get even more frustrated when I realize that I DO THIS.

When we throw these clauses at the beginning of our sentences, we look like this:


“I think that I have an opinion, but I just want to let you know that it’s just my thought and I may be wrong, so actually, I’m not really comfortable saying that I have an opinion of any sort afterall.”

Why do we slam ourselves this way?  Perhaps it makes us  more sociable, more open to hearing others’ points of view and exchanging ideas.  Maybe we’re worried that if we didn’t preface our opinions in this way, people might perceive us as bitchy, or as cold (a double standard, for sure).  The worst part is that I think most of us do it without conscious awareness – it’s been drilled into us from a young age that it’s okay, and socially preferred, for us to regard our opinions and thoughts in this manner.

I need to think more like my friend’s mom:  she was featured in Forbes magazine as being one of the most successful female entrepreneurs.  She’s a very respectable person, a woman of power.  And she talks like one, too.

I haven’t started my own multi-million dollar business or anything, but I, too, can be a woman of power, if I talk like one.

(For instance, I just resisted the instinct to write “I think I can be a woman of power too.”)

I don’t think – I know.


Be vulnerable.


In improv, you’re supposed to play characters as a thin veil of yourself.

Instead of playing a doctor as I would expect a doctor to act from my vast array of experiences (i.e. my own doctors, Grey’s Anatomy, Scrubs), I should play Liz-as-a-doctor (i.e. Liz if she was given the responsibility of determining someone’s treatment plan, Liz if she was sleep deprived and trying to understand a complicated medical thing.)  This makes the character more real – instead of being a walking, talking prototype, the character is a real, earnest, genuine person who you could imagine interacting with in real life.  I can only speculate how a doctor would respond to making a wrong diagnosis, but I can imagine vividly how I would feel about screwing up my data analysis (oh, grad student Liz.)  Using that emotion (the feeling of having screwed up as a PhD student) to compel me forward in the scene will be much more sincere and engaging to the audience than seeing me mimic what it might be like to screw up the job of an MD (of which I have no experience.)

Playing scenes this way, close to home and the heart, is the focus of my Level 3 improv class at iO.  A lot of people in class have an issue with playing scenes this way and my teacher has to continually push them: “How does this make you feel?”  Why do they have such an issue with it?


People don’t like to be vulnerable.  Being vulnerable makes us weak.  Vulnerability gives people the opportunity to see what makes us tick, but they could use that against us.  But being vulnerable also makes us humans.  It shows that we need other people (after all, we’re an innately social species… of course we need other people.)  Being vulnerable lets us connect to other people.  Being vulnerable shows that we’re willing to trust others – “I know you could hurt me, but I am willing to open up to you anyhow.”

One reason why we’re hesitant to be ourselves on stage is because we don’t want to go to deep in front of an audience of strangers. We think to ourselves, “Oh, surely I can’t play ‘heartbreak’ sincerely because I might risk touching upon my own experiences with heartbreak.  I might let others see how much I was hurt.”  (Personally, I find it exhilarating to do this, but that’s because I’m weird and love to do things that terrify the hell out of me.  For instance, I’m afraid of heights and going skydiving this summer.)

I have this theory that every time you interact with someone – your boyfriend or girlfriend, your mother or father, your neighbor, a stranger on the street – you give them a piece of you (metaphorically) that you can never get back.  But you do so willingly, in hopes that they’ll give you something in return.  You take the risk, you trust someone else.

In improv, it’s the same way. You give a piece of yourself to your fellow improvisers and to your audience.  You trust them to invest in your scene, to make you look good, to believe your characters.  You trust that they will only make you love improv even more.

On stage, make statements about how you genuinely feel.  Be authentic.  Otherwise, what’s the point?  The scene will not know depth that makes it believable – the scene will be a caricature with two cartoon actors.  I know heartbreak sucks and it’s scary as fuck to take another stab at it.  I know asking for help makes you feel small and incapable.  I know sometimes your decisions don’t work out the way that you planned and admitting those mistakes means admitting confusion and possible defeat.  But in real life, we have to make statements about how we genuinely feel.  We need to open up and be authentic with the people that we care about.  Otherwise, what’s the point?

Our ability to be vulnerable makes us beautiful.


Author’s note:

Writing this post, I googled “vulnerable improv” and was (a bit naively) surprised at how frequently the topic has been discussed. (Even though this idea is new to me, it’s clearly not objectively new.)  Here are a few:

This post was partially inspired by this great TedX talk, here:

I think it’s ironic that I haven’t told you what else inspired it – for fear of putting too much of myself (of being too vulnerable, perhaps?) on the www.

An introspection: vulnerability explains why the people that I improvised with in college became some of my closest friends.

And finally, I leave you with this quote:

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket- safe, dark, motionless, airless–it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.” – CS Lewis

What’s so bad about questions?


My improv instructor makes a buzzing noise whenever we ask a question on stage. BEEHHH! Wrong.

Okay, so these are the types of questions that you don’t want to be asked on stage:

I don’t want to be held accountable for having a good, spontaneous answer to those questions while I’m in front of an audience.  But in life, these conversations are actually interesting, and you have the opportunity to think through your point of view.

You can learn a lot about people from the questions that they ask and the answers that they provide.  I get that by asking questions, you put a burden/responsibility on the other person.  Maybe the other improviser hasn’t yet decided what their mother thinks of their tatoo, or in real life, your little brother hasn’t decided where he’s going to college yet (“So stop asking me, Liz!”).  But in a way, by asking a question, aren’t you giving a gift?  An opportunity for that person to share a little piece of themselves?  If they don’t yet have an answer to the question you asked: you’ve given them a friendly environment in which to hash it out.  Questions let people put their world-view out there to maybe impact someone.  We influence each other more than we are aware – for instance, letting others know that you think voting is important might inspire them to vote as well.

In college, my then-boyfriend wrote a play.  The main character’s girlfriend was loosely based on me (original, I know).  Honestly, he did a pretty good job of characterizing my mannerisms and way of speaking.  So good, in fact, that I became self-conscious when the actress that was playing her complained to my playwright boyfriend: “This character is so annoying!  All she does is ask questions!  Doesn’t she have independent thoughts of her own?”

I do!  But I love learning about other people.  Sometimes I still get self-conscious – when I catch myself in question mode, I think back to that offhanded remark.  I don’t think I should be penalized for my insatiable desire to understand where significant others in my life come from, their stories, their background, their opinions, their characters.  Plus, by asking questions, I’m making statements: “I am interested in X. Tell me what you think of it.” Or, “I am interested in you. Please tell me more about yourself.”

I’m in the questions camp.  Don’t be a dick about it on stage or in life – respect others’ opinions and realities, and don’t make them do all the work (be ready and willing to open up, yourself).  If you utilize questions as another way to build relationships and explore new possibilities, then questions shouldn’t be prohibited.  They’re just another tool you have at your disposal.



Nope, I don’t mean financially.  I am not qualified to give you financial advice. (Hell, I need a little bit of help on that myself.  Do you know how difficult it is to figure out taxes if your income is a graduate student stipend?!)  Invest in your relationships and the lives of the people you care about.  

I’ve heard many an improv instructor say these words.  But this statement is a gift that keeps on giving: each time I hear it, I unearth a new meaning/life lesson from within it.  My most recent exposure to this statement was in an exercise in my Level 3 iO improv class.  We were performing two-person scenes where the improvisers had to focus on a specific task but could not discuss it.  So, for instance, two women were conducting an alien autopsy.  WHAT?! If I’m conducting an alien autopsy, my first impulse is going to be to discuss how disgusting I find its guts – to tell the other improviser on stage how this situation makes me feel.  That’s a statement, right?  Check! Done! Rule abided.

Okay, sure, that’s a statement, but that violates the constraints of the exercise.   Instead, the two improvisers were coworkers who were chatting about how annoyed they were when their sisters ignored their texts and phone calls.  They acted like the alien autopsy was no big deal, because it wasn’t a big deal to those characters.  Rather, they invested what they were saying to each other, and grounded the scene in their connection, rather than in some environmental detail.  It made the scene more interesting to watch.

In life, there’s a lot of merit to making statements.  It helps people see where you’re coming from, which facilitates relationships and understanding.  But you can’t just walk around making random statements.  You’d sound like a robot.  (Image robot voice) “I am a graduate student. I do experiments. You are my friend. We are getting coffee.”

Make statements about how you feel, what you love, what you hate, and what you think about what the people you surround yourself with love and hate.  Make statements about your goals and dreams.  Make statements about the things that make you a dynamic human being.  That way, people can invest in you.

The other day, I was talking with my good friend, G.  To my embarrassment, I had no idea what a typical day in G’s life was like.  I have a basic understanding of his job, and I know some of the people that he hangs out with, but for being such a close friend, I felt like I should be able to recall much more about him!  Am I really that terrible of a listener? I typically pride myself on my listening skills (although my memory is abysmal.)  But no, I actually know a lot about G.  G is a very good example of someone who makes statements that make him a dynamic human being.  G loves improv and wants to make it as a professional improviser.  He loves getting to know people new people.  He appreciates his family more than most people I know, but in a very subtle way.  He is not afraid to be himself, even if it puts him in a vulnerable position.  In fact, I think he prefers the excitement/raw connection inherent in that exposure.  He holds his friends in high esteem.  He is a people person.  G used to be frustrated by status.  G doesn’t like when people are half-ass committed to the things he loves.  G makes dynamic statements about himself, and because G is someone that I care about, I invest in him and those statements.  They tell me a lot about who he is, and guide my behavior and thoughts regarding him.

In life, what you do doesn’t matter. There are thousands of PhD students, improvisers, Chicagoans.  What you do doesn’t matter.  It’s who you do it with.

(Tell that to your significant other.  They’ll get a little twinkle in their eye.)

QuestionMaster (or how I will fail that round of Circle of Death if I play during the month of March)


So, February has not been quite as successful as January in terms of my adventure. (I went back and forth for like 5 minutes right there deciding if I should use the word “adventure” or “journey.” I decided on “adventure,” because I think you need to be able to separate yourself from something a bit to see the path you’ve taken before you can call it a “journey.” Plus, “adventure” sounds more fun! “Journey” is too introspective.)

Please don’t mistake – I’m still working on my January resolution (A SECOND improv teacher has now told me that I need to put more of myself in scenes; that I’m a great support, but I need to have stronger self-determined characters.  The “and” is imperative.)  These monthly goals are cumulative. I’m still trying to “Yes, And” (and this month I’ll still be trying to respect), it’s just that I have a different focus each month.  That leads me to this month’s rule:

(Drum roll please!!!)

Make statements.  By asking questions, you put a lot of pressure on your partner to come up with something witty.  Instead, you can take it as a moment to give your partner a gift, rather than leaving him or her to hang dry as they try to come up with an answer to your vague question.  Here’s how I described the rule in my initial explanation of this project: “10) Make statements – Don’t ask questions; decide for yourself. Establish within the first few lines of a scene who the other person is, who you are, what your relationship is, where you are. Give yourselves names. Instead of asking them what the headline of the Sunday paper is, tell them they should read Sunday’s headline story and explain why.”

Consider these two versions of the same scene:

Patrick: Are these yours?

Melissa: I don’t know!  I haven’t noticed I was missing any.  What size are they?

Patrick: Hmm.  I don’t know. (Sad) Why did this have to happen?

Melissa: I’m not sure.  What’s wrong?


Patrick: Excuse me, miss. I’m sorry if this comes off a little forward, but I think your underwear got mixed in with my laundry.  Are these pink cotton panties your’s?

Melissa: I don’t know!  I haven’t noticed I was missing any, but most of mine are pink!  Are they a size 6?

Patrick: Ugh! Size 8!  They must be my ex-girlfriend’s!  I can’t believe that hoe left me for her personal trainer! (Begins weeping.)

(I don’t know where I come up with these scenarios, either. Don’t you wish you were inside my head.) Of course, this example can only be improved so much because these two people don’t have a relationship at the start of the scene (an upcoming rule for a future month: drill deep into relationships. The most quality scenes, and those most enjoyable to watch, are either slice-of-life:this-is-what-we-do-every-day scenes or a this-is-the-day-that-everything-changes-between-us scenes. Unfortunately, if the two characters in the scene don’t know each other, these are both exceedingly challenging.)

But you can see how in the second version of the scene, we know what “this” is.  Patrick doesn’t have to guess at what women’s underwear might be sized. Melissa doesn’t have to guess at what Patrick means by “this” when he says “Why did this have to happen?” In the second version, we jam packed a ton of information into 3 lines: these are strangers at a laundromat, Patrick is the type of guy to call a woman “miss”, Melissa is the type of woman who wears pink underwear (whatever that means), Patrick is recovering (or rather, failing to recover) from a break-up with his ex-girlfriend.  Notice that even though Melissa still asks a question in the second version, she is really making a statement (“I am a size 6”) in question format.  So, by making statements, we can advance the scene and get to the juicy parts much quicker.

Anyhow, shouldn’t you be doing something other than reading my blog right now? (Haha, see what I did there?!  I told you to stop wasting time, but in the form of a question!) (Oh, but seriously, please keep reading my blog. 🙂 I like to know that I’m not just writing this for the cyber abyss!)


PS. In case you didn’t get the reference in the title, UrbanDictionary can help you out.