Not too long ago, my mother said, “I can’t see back very far or very well, but the fact that I had four such unique children is proof that I let them raise themselves.” Without trying, she speaks her truth in metered poetry. But that bit of truth is only part of the story. My mother decided her children were brilliant, whether we were or not. She knew we were talented—because every child is. She knew how to tend our talents. Collectively, we were actors, dancers, singers, artists, drummers and fifers, divers, football players, and ice skaters. She did not raise us to be stars or Olympic champions. She just wanted us to be us.
I wanted to be an actress. It didn’t mean I would be one, or even that she thought I would be. It meant that together we stumbled upon a path with a sign that said “This way in….” She sent me on my way to learn how to greet and follow passion. She enrolled me in the first of my acting classes when I was twelve. There were more acting classes, and lots of plays to read. When I was sixteen, she got me into an Improvisational Workshop at The Arena Stage in Washington. In my summer at the “Improv,” I learned that improvisation is the ultimate in playing well with others.
Improvisation wasn’t new to me. My dad, when he wasn’t a buttoned-down diplomat in a Brooks Brothers suit, was a jazz musician. He had a deep repertoire, studied the greats, and practiced. A lot. Simple scales, rooted in the classic canon of composers, became creative ingenuity that was the soundtrack of our childhood.
I did not become an actress; I became a teacher. But improvisation has been as important in my classroom as it might have been on the stage. Improvisation is both a trust fall and a leap into the unknown. It is deeply collaborative and responsive to the talent in the room—my third graders. It draws upon deep skilled practice and a repertoire built over time. To be able to improvise, I have studied the greats, practiced, and used literature as a starting point. I have learned in the classroom what my father learned at the piano: letting it fly is very different than “winging it.”
Improvisation is about noticing, connecting, and drawing from an acquired party mix of what works. Improvisation is an invitation to use your talent, passion, wit, and grit to make something new again with others. All you have to do is work hard and know when to stop and say yes.