Improv Wisdom: Don’t Prepare, Just Show Up by Patricia Ryan Madson


Patricia Ryan Madson presents thirteen laws of improvisation and a life of joy. Here is an excerpt on a creative way of playing with one’s mistakes.

“Matt Smith, a wonderful Seattle improv teacher and solo performer, taught me a liberating game that can be used as a response to a personal screwup. He calls it ‘the Circus Bow.’ Matt claims this is how circus clowns deal with a slip in their routines. Instead of shrinking and berating himself silently with ‘Oh, no, I really blew it!’ the clown turns to the crowd on one side and takes a magnificent bow with his hands extended and his arms high in the air, proclaiming ‘Ta-dah!’ as if he had just pulled off a master stunt. He then turns to face the other side of the audience and repeats the bow, ‘Ta-dah!’ Doing it in both directions allows him a 360-degree view of where he is.

“The virtue of this is that it pulls his attention out into the world again, looking around and standing tall. This engaged and forward-looking vantage point is an excellent place to be after a blooper. It is more common to focus inward when a blunder occurs. ‘How could I have done that?’ The body shrinks and withdraws. Instead a mistake should wake us up. Become more alert, more alive. Ta-dah! New territory. Now, what can I make of this? What comes next?

“We need to let go of outcomes. This is the hard part. Naturally we have some result in mind. We want the bar mitzvah to go without a hitch. We want the carpet to be installed flawlessly, the dinner to come out of the oven like the magazine photos, the meeting to start on time, the vacation to be perfect. The more precise my vision of an outcome, the more likely I am to be disappointed. Things don’t turn out as planned. You don’t need to abandon your dreams; just don’t let them get in the way of noticing what is taking place. Observe the currents of life, accept what is happening, including mistakes, and continue working to create the best outcome. The key here is a flexible mind.”

Patricia Ryan Madson, Sr. Lecturer Emerita, Stanford University, has been teaching for four decades. On the Stanford drama faculty since 1977, she founded the Stanford Improvisors in 1991. As head of the undergraduate acting program, she won the university’s highest teaching prize, the Lloyd W. Dinkelspiel Award for outstanding contribution to undergraduate education. She also teaches at the Esalen Institute and for Stanford’s Continuing Studies. Patricia lives with her husband, Ronald Madson, and their Himalayan cat, Tara, in El Granada, California, where they direct the California Center for Constructive Living.

In 1996 she founded the Creativity Initiative at Stanford, an interdisciplinary alliance of faculty who share the belief that creativity can be taught. Patricia has taught Design Improv for the School of Engineering, and was a guest lecturer for the Stanford Technology Ventures Program and for the Mayfield Fellows Program.

She teaches regularly for the Esalen Institute, and has given workshops for the Banff Centre for Leadership Studies, 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 and the Meaningful Life Therapy Association in Japan. Patricia combines her teaching of improvisation with work as a counselor using an Eastern approach to problem solving known as Constructive Living TM. For ten years she was the American Coordinator of the Oomoto School of Traditional Japanese Arts in Kameoka, Japan. Patricia was one of the founding Board members of Bay Area TheatreSportsTM, and has been a long time student of Keith Johnstone. She currently serves on the Outside Financial Advisory Board of the San Francisco Zen Center.

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