Facing a Life Change? Improv Helps You JUMP IN

July 2017 – by Jenni Lilledahl

This is Ginger Xavier. Ginger was my 1996 alter ego. I had just moved to Chicago from Minneapolis. I was 31, had quit my day job and decided to dive deeper into the world of improvisation (and to be with the love of my life and future hubby John Sweeney, who had already taken the Chicago leap). I had never lived outside of the Twin Cities before. It was a big change for me, and especially moving without a job waiting for me. I was jumping into the unknown.

Ginger was the source of some of my income in Chicago. Yup, I was working for “Rent-a-Nerd.” (Think ‘Singing Telegram,’ only instead of a beautiful singer crashing a party to surprise the honoree, a “long lost friend, who happens to be a total dork” comes crashing in equipped with all sorts of insider info to embarrass the honoree). This seemed like a perfect job for a budding comedian and improviser. I would write joke­s, perform one-off shows on the spot and make some money. I had no clue what I was doing and virtually no related experience to do the job, but I went for it. It turned out to be great immersive training not only for comedy, but also for life.

Looking back, I credit my nimbleness during that life transition to my improv training (and that attractive costume). I had been practicing improvisation for about three years when I made the move to Chicago. In the world of improv, we never have enough information, and yet we act as if we have all the information we’ll ever need. When faced with an unexpected moment in improv, we train ourselves to jump in and move forward positively, no matter what. We take the smallest instinct or idea and we commit. We make choices, quickly, and then support the heck out of those choices. We do this over and over and over until we train our bodies to find solutions from thin air. All of this happens in a uniquely supportive environment, so not only are we moving beyond our fears to act, but we’re being loved and applauded for it along the way.

My move to Chicago could be labeled one of life’s ‘fun changes,’ an adventure really. I was choosing the transition, and I was young, had no dependents, little debt, and the blank pallet of my life ahead of me. The oft used quote, “the only thing that is constant is change” (usually attributed to Heraclitus) rings true for all of us in big ways and small. And life changes aren’t always delivered in that “adventurous” way. The big five always come to mind first: death or major health challenges in the family, birth (becoming a parent), job change, marriage (and divorce), and a major move. Unexpected twists and turns of all sizes are part of our everyday lives. Instead of resisting change, improvisers learn to embrace the unknown and our improv mindset actually helps us thrive through the change.

Taking bold action during change is not always our instinct. There are plenty of times in my life when an unwelcome change fell in my lap and my reaction was resistance, fear, and immobility. In fact, it’s a pretty common human reaction. When our oldest son was born and I became a parent for the first time, that leap into the unknown was massive and there were certainly moments of fear. When a change is very sudden or traumatic, you may even feel completely frozen and out of control. Losing my sister unexpectedly to cancer falls in that category for me. In both instances, my improv practice and mindset allowed me to overcome the urge to freeze in fear. To an improviser, this means jumping in, moving forward, declaring, and choosing boldly with what you have in that moment. . . and making the best of it. It also means paying attention and listening to the world around you to stay connected to “your story.”

I was leading our Improv for Life group at Gilda’s Club Twin Cities last week when the subject of jumping in came into play. One of our students, Janet, was in a short two-person scene when I asked her to re-deliver a line with a different emotional point of view. Her intellect stopped her and she said, “That doesn’t make sense. How could I say those words from a loving point of view?” I said, “just jump in and do it anyways. Use your body and voice first and move forward.” She jumped in and it spurred an “a ha” conversation after class.

In periods of change we are often shackled with lack of information. Janet and I talked about how our logical brains jump in to protect and tell us to STOP, gather more details and move ahead cautiously. Janet shared that she is in a new job and had been feeling anxiety about how to move forward with some of her duties because she did not have the insights she needed. “I have been feeling really frozen,” she said. “However, because of my improv practice, I am now going to ask myself ‘How can I jump in anyways? In what way CAN I move forward and jump in NOW.” Asking that improvisation-inspired question immediately pointed Janet in a new direction and she was off and running, frozen no more.

The students that come to play and practice improv with us at the BNW Student Union are frequently facing change. During whatever transition they are navigating, be it one of the big five or something else, their instincts are telling them to “do something positive.” Their instincts are right on! Improv is a powerful way to help you be your best self as you navigate change. You will be surrounded by an undeniably supportive group of people, you’ll delight in the play that fuels positivity during life’s challenges, and you’ll practice ‘jumping in.’ In fact, at the BNW Student Union we use the saying, “Embrace change. Change is fuel.” Needing a safe place to practice jumping in? You are always welcome at the BNW Student Union. Our Summer Stretch mini courses and Fall classes are open for registration now!

– Jenni Lilledahl is the co-owner of the Brave New Workshop Theatre (along with her husband and co-improviser John Sweeney), president of the BNW’s Student Union (school of improvisation) and co-founder of Gilda’s Club Twin Cities.

Be Brave. Do Improv.