How to Improve

Course: Improv - Foundation Level

Institution: BATS

Instructor: Chris Sams

I circled the block a few times. Where was this God-forsaken building? Nothing on the website indicated how complicated it would be to find the entrance. I headed back down the block and a fella was stretching his neck in a similar manner. He saw me walking towards him and asked if I was looking for Improv. Yes, I said. Yes, I am.

We were the last two to arrive. I immediately spotted a woman who was taking a writing class with me. “Oh, you’re on a self-improvement kick, too!” she cried out in front of the semi-circle of students. I brushed her comments off with a waive and thought, “Yes and it really helps for you to yell that in front of everybody.” Slightly embarrassed, and any semblance of cool shot to hell, I took a seat.

The group in total was fourteen strong. It was a pretty even mix of men and women from all walks of life. When we introduced ourselves I learned that most were there to get over performance anxiety or learn to think on their feet better. I was there, as always, to learn something about myself.

To start we did something I had feared about taking an improv class - throwing an imaginary ball. No one looks good throwing an imaginary ball. To my relief, however, we used an actual ball. I thought I was in the clear until the instructor decided to mix it up by introducing "sound ball."

This time we had to make noises as we threw the ball to each other. I found it pure torture. Yet, others, seemed to thoroughly enjoy making the most idiotic noises they could muster to another stranger.

I realized then this class was going to require something much more from me - I was going to have to let my guard down.

Mind you, I know how to get down. I am the same woman who regularly dances in my socks in my sister's dining room for the amusement of my little nephew. But this was something altogether different.

The next exercise hinted at the source of my problem and a way out. Our instructor had everyone walk around the room, go up to each other and yell, “I failed,” and then throw up our arms in exultation. Or, “I totally messed that up” and do a victory dance. The idea is to celebrate that you took a risk.

It instantly relaxed me. I had never allowed myself to say those words with joy and it definitely changed how I began to feel about the class. This was a safe place to fail. There are so few of those they are hard to recognize - even when you’re in one.

I’d like to say that after this exercise I jumped in wholeheartedly, but I can’t. I can take risks in business, but I’ve always found that taking risks with people is a lot more difficult. I can say that I waded in further.

Over the next six weeks we were introduced to many improv principles, like “Yes, and.” This is a way to build on the ideas of others as opposed to shutting them down or in the parlance of improv, “blocking” them, with the dreaded “Yes, but.”

Many of the principles were, of course, good life habits, like “make your partner look good,” “accept your own ideas,” “listen,” “make eye contact,” and “start positive.”

But I took the most away from the various games and exercises he had us do.

One of the last ones we did is called the status game. Everyone selects a card from a deck of playing cards. You don’t look at it but place it on your forehead for others to see. He told us that the higher the card number, the higher status the individual. Then he had us mingle, pretending we were at a party. Afterwards he asked us to line up according to what we thought our status was before revealing the number to ourselves.

Walking around, I thought I was lower status because of how people interacted with me. Turns out I was higher than I realized and the people who gave me quick glances and then looked away, were more often than not, those who thought they were lower status, even if their card number was high.

Many times when I’ve been at a party I’ve tried to connect with a stranger and been completely rebuffed. I had always assumed it was because the other person thought I was not worth their time or that I was lower status. What the game taught me is that people act according to what they think of themselves.

And that's when it hit me. What matters at the end of the day is what I think of myself, and if I'm not judging myself it makes it a lot easier to take risks with people. Being yourself, it turns out, never fails.

Community Theater

A while back, a friend invited me to a matinee at the Masquers Playhouse. It’s a small community theater located in Richmond Point, a city better known for its toxins than its theater, but I thought it a good Sunday outing.

The feature performance was City of Angels. At thirty minutes before the musical began, we got there just in time. One rule of community theater: it’s first come, first served seating. After a brief tussle with an octogenarian about a seat, my friend and I sat down in separate seats (score 1 for the octogenarian) with plenty of time to thoroughly review the playbill.

The theater held about fifty people. The playbill was full of ads from such denizens of business as the local real estate agent and an ergonomics specialist. There was also a long list of theater patrons that included those who had donated in the range of $10-25 to the theater. I wondered if, at the $14 I paid for a ticket, I shouldn’t be listed.

In the minutes that stretched before me and the curtain call, I soldiered through the theater program. It was filled with upbeat descriptions of cast members, each of whom was playing multiple parts in the afternoon’s production. Some of the cast blurbs listed grateful mothers who thanked husbands and children for their support while “Mommy is on stage” while other blurbs gave shout outs to their dogs or cats.

Eventually, no curtain rose, but four people stepped out into the spotlight and began the musical. The Angel City Four, as the playbill called them, began to sing in a jazzy style that only 40s music will allow. They grooved to the melody with their bodies. The four of them were a perfect microcosm of what was to come.

There was a cherub-cheeked tall man who looked to be in his later twenties; a thin, more distinguished fellow who had to be in his sixties; a young round woman in her early thirties replete with forties hair and finally, a woman well into her sixties sporting a very bad blonde wig which didn’t move an inch in the jazzier moments of her hip shaking to the quartet’s number.

The musical progressed and after the initial shock to my aesthetic sense, I settled in to watch the story unfold and be carried away by the music.

The acting wasn’t half bad as musicals go. But the singing. It was the singing that disturbed me the most. Perhaps it’s because singing is the raw emotion – it’s impossible to hide behind. You either hit the high note or you don’t. Which sadly, in this particular case, every male cast member failed to do.

Alas, there is nothing more depressing than bad community theater. I glanced at the Act list to see what song the cast was on and therefore what time until my eventual freedom, and wondered why. Why was I depressed by this fantastic display of organization and free spirit?

Without an initial clue, I amused myself by making up stories about the cast.

There was the older player who no doubt spent a dutiful life toiling away at an office job, hating his boss, marrying, having kids, paying for college but never lost that spark to perform. So he indulged it at weeknight rehearsals and Sunday matinees, knowing full well there’s a lawn to be mowed before too long.

Then there was the truly talented older player. One of the many people who have talent that they might have pursued for some time but their talent never took them beyond small towns and small playhouses.

Right when I began to get bored with my analysis of the Angel City Four quartet, a man appeared, in drag. There was no explanation. It may very well have been a part of the musical, but in this theater it came off altogether differently. I couldn’t help but imagine that the male player convinced the director to let him indulge his fantasy of singing in drag. You can do that in community theater.

It wasn’t until the song, “It Needs Work,” that I finally got an inkling of what these players seemingly sought to capture. The blond woman who sang the song looked to be in her forties. She looked like a soccer mom, married for over ten years. There was muscle in her arms and her voice was of medium strength – the kind enjoyed around countless family pianos at Christmas-time. I flashed on what her life must be like and I realized it must be pretty interesting. Okay, granted she probably wasn't living a glamorous life, but it seemed she must have been living one other than ordinary.

Hell, maybe her husband came to see some of her performances or simply liked the fact that after the kids are shuttled, the bills are paid and dinner is served, his wife has something more to her – she sings. She does community theater. Maybe her husband fell in love with her husky voice and every time he hears it he is recaptured by a bit of that old feeling – the excitement when falling in love and learning something new about your beloved. I imagined all this while I watched her sing her heart out onstage and then it hit me. This display is about living.

I was humbled. While I related more to one of the main players who looked about as embarrassed to be doing theater in the community, as I was to be attending, I was also awed by his courage to get on stage.

Perhaps I was so quick to boredom and subsequent analysis because I am a bit of a coward – the one audience member who hadn’t admitted it to herself. I’m not sure I could get up there. Even if one can sing, it takes quite a lot of internal fortitude to admit, that first one wants to and second that one wants to in front of an audience. Singing, acting, whatever the artistic tool, it takes courage to express a desire but even more so to act on it.

I watched and was further educated by what the whole display revealed in me. I have secret desires and dreams but unlike those community theater players, I am afraid. I fear acknowledging them and I fear missing out on pursuing them. I couch my fear in a false fear that I too will end up in a community theater when I am 50, never having reached any pinnacle of artistic success.

When I was forced to step back yet again by a fiery performance of “All You Have To Do is Wait,” I realized that the thing I was so critical of – the community theater performance, is the thing life is made of. And to be afraid of it is to be afraid to live. That is to perform, let loose; sing out – no matter the setting, no matter the price of the seats. Success is not reaching a pinnacle but in the doing.

So in a small playhouse in a toxic city, I learned that life encompasses wants, desires, dreams. Some realize them, some don’t and somewhere in between, well, there’s community theater.

How to Speak: Speech Skills

Course: Public Speaking 101

Institution: Speech Skills

Instructor: Cara Hale Alter

Location: San Francisco; she came to us but also offers workshops

If you couldn’t understand what I was saying in my Pilates videos, that’s because I suffer from an acute inability to E-NUN-CI-ATE. I know this because I’ve been diagnosed by a professional.

As you might imagine, as an employer, I was also concerned with the personal development of my employees. As such, I decided to have Cara Hale Alter of Speech Skills come in and teach the art of effective public speaking to a small group of Consorte Media folks. I knew of Cara because I took a class from her ten years ago via U.C. Berkeley Extension. Since then she’s turned her class into a growing business.

The class started with Cara breaking down, in a most theatrical way, the many bad habits of poor public speakers. Cara, somewhere inside, is harboring a Broadway star as she can effortlessly and humorously go from imitation to characterization. Using this skill, she laid out The Basics.

The foundation for good speaking is literally a good foundation: body language - strong posture (the spine and shoulders should form a T), fluid gestures and relaxed movement; voice - strong volume, articulation, solid pace and expression; and eye contact – making it, holding it and engaging the audience.

She then quickly had us each get up and say a few words in front of a video camera. We were all a bit nervous and through our fumbles, we learned that the most important aspects of public speaking have nothing to do with what we are actually saying. Instead, it’s about what we are unconsciously communicating via our body language, voice and eyes. In fact, what we do with our body language tends to say what kind of relationship we have with the people with whom we are speaking. If we don’t have a relationship with our audience, our body language can actually forge the connection much more than our words can.

People say a lot more than they think they do (see also, You Say More Than You Think: Use the New Body Language to Get What You Want!, the 7-day Plan). If you’re a poker player, you might call this a “tell.” The little things that people do, the micro-expressions on faces let you know what a person is thinking and even planning. Noted psychologist Paul Ekman has made a career (and TV show) out of studying these facial expressions.

Interestingly, 90% of nervousness symptoms are not visible. What is visible are the attempts to try and hide our nerves. How do people try and hide their nervousness? Through things like extraneous uhs and ums, excessive movement, emphatic gestures or stiff hands, holding their chins too far up or too far down, self-commenting or failing to pause, to name a few. Often, the behaviors that you think are not giving you away, like a poker mask or smiling, actually do give you away.

I’m sure you’ve seen the research statistic that shows people would rather die than speak in public. That’s because public speaking engages all of our primitive, animal instincts. It’s like what happens when an animal is caught in a clearing in a forest and the eyes of its predators peer at it from the recesses of the woods. The animal is very aware of all the eyes on it and its eyes dart everywhere to figure out who will come at it first. Our fear when we’re singled out from the herd is hard-wired. We become prey and all of our defenses come out. There are a lot of chemicals in our bodies to protect us and they support certain mechanisms to deal with threats, like “fight or flight” which might translate into aggressive speech or dismissive speech or “tend and befriend” which might translate into ingratiating speech or excessive smiling.

The great thing is that you can learn to be comfortable speaking in public by developing skills that communicate ease and comfort. It seems counter-intuitive but over time, if you practice being something you end up being it.

Today, that “it” is authentic. Like the shoulder pads of the 80s, aggressive, command and control-style speaking is out. Now the accepted speaking style is more about authenticity. It’s about being you but with a clear communication foundation. In the immortal words of the great Raquel Welch, “Style, is being yourself on purpose.”

The perfect balance between authoritative and approachable definitely takes practice. Check out a taping of my efforts below.


Note: I have a sock on my head to keep my head level when speaking and she is working with me here on pacing.

Cara quickly honed in on the fact that I am a speedy syllable slinger – I talk too fast. She taught me that speaking quickly can be considered less confident if it’s corroborated by other behaviors like itchy fingers, tight gestures, bowed head, etc. She also pointed out that I don’t hold enough eye contact. She taught me that I set the standard for the kind of eye contact I want to receive. Humans are really reciprocal. Holding eye contact helps turn the speaker’s focus from inward to outward and hence, it’s a great way to manage nerves. When I practiced, I discovered that focusing my eyes helped me to focus my thoughts and it lowered my adrenaline.

Next, I learned to use a downward inflection (meaning your pitch goes down at the end of a sentence instead of up – e.g., more Barry White than Valley Girl) but use a wide range of vocal expression. Then, I learned to move my heard separately from my shoulders – like an eagle or an owl. This is a key signal of leadership and comes across as regal. Once my head was moving on its own, I had to be sure to remember that my nose and eyes must point together to be seen as credible (have you ever conversed with someone whose nose is facing you but whose eyes are looking off somewhere else?). Finally, while I had solid posture, I learned that holding my hands near my belly button was the most comfortable looking, even if at first, it didn’t feel that way.

Yes, when learning to be effective, it isn’t always going to feel comfortable to the speaker. Cara was quick to remind us that as the speaker it’s our job to be aware and in charge of the signals we are sending. A speaker’s job is to highlight the message – what we want the audience to take away. We truly are leading the experience. That also means that the speaker’s attention should be on the audience, not herself. Said another way, it’s important to be present.

Taking my time, making eye contact, being present will help me to be effective. Hmm, public speaking as a metaphor for life – who knew?

Finally, she had the whole group work on articulation. She gave us long Popsicle sticks and asked us to put them in our mouths horizontally. We had to practice talking as if we didn’t have a stick in our mouth. The result was we learned to open our mouths wide when speaking and take our time with each syllable. We looked pretty silly sitting around a conference table chanting an old weather rhyme out loud: “Whether the weather is cold or whether the weather is hot, we’ll be together whatever the weather, whether we like it or not.” But it worked, whether we liked it or not.

In the end, Cara encouraged us to practice and decide to use our skills. She had each of us create action plans for going forward and armed us with exercises and personal videos. Full of all this great information, I hurried home and decided to look up my notes from when I first took a class with Cara. To my dismay, I realized that Cara pointed out that I needed to work on the exact same things I did ten years ago! This really reinforced the point that to get better, taking a class is only where it begins and practice {pause} is where the change happens.

Squaw Valley: Boarding School

Course: Private Snow Boarding Lessons

Institution: Squaw Valley Ski School

Instructor: Travis

Location: Squaw Valley, Tahoe, CA

In these very ambiguous times, there’s a lot to fear. Will I fail? Will I succeed? Will I be alright? From the generalized to the very particular. Did you know that Allodoxaphobia is the fear of opinions? If you have that, I suggest you stop reading here.

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” I must admit, this popular quote never occurs to me when I’m afraid. It’s tough to face fear in all its interesting forms, everywhere it pops up. Facing fear takes courage – an ability to be aware and present no matter how uncomfortable. Not an easy task when the main sources of your fear, your thoughts, are taking you everywhere but here. It’s tough to grasp that when we are consumed by fear, what we think may be happening or will happen may not actually be happening or happen at all.

That’s what happened to me. A while back, my college boyfriend, a snowboarding instructor, decided he was going to teach me to snowboard. Tears (his) and recriminations (mine) prevented us from even getting down a bunny slope together.

Frankly, I was terrified of snowboarding. I never learned to ski as a child – we didn’t have the money and growing up no one I knew had even seen snow. All I knew about boarding was that I didn’t know anything about it. It was new and would require new things from me and that scared the bejeezus out me. I thought I would die getting off a chair lift or die from exposure. I thought that I didn’t have the right gear or was mistakenly on a black diamond run. I thought that Après was some sort of secret society that excluded brown girls from Los Angeles.

It took me years to get up the courage to try again and those attempts were equally terrible. Finally, I enrolled in a snowboarding school in Whistler. I had no idea what I was getting into. I went by myself and somehow landed in a house full of nine dudes (really – no better way to describe them). They were from all over the world, Japan, France, Italy, Australia - there to become certified snowboarding instructors.

Somehow I, the consummate beginner, had ended up in a house of near pros. Packed with all my gear were all my old fears: Tachophobia (the fear of speed), Atelophobia (the fear of imperfection), Atychiphobia (the fear of failure) and Catagelophobia (the fear of being ridiculed).

We snowboarded 5 hours a day every day for a week. When we were not riding, we worked on board maintenance or watched snowboarding footage. That’s it. It was monastic really.

I learned though. I discovered that the irrational fear, the fear that is important to face, first comes up in your mind and then makes its way to your body – tensing you up. And if there’s anything you cannot be while snowboarding – it’s tense. You have to get loose and bend your knees. A relaxed body is better able to respond to the dynamics of the terrain.

I also learned how to manage my fear by doing a few key things:

(1) get help: getting a lesson is a great way to have someone with you who is not invested in the outcome, just in teaching – boyfriend/girlfriend or parent/child skirmishes alleviated plus there’s a certain safety in numbers;

(2) be mindful and aware moment to moment: focusing in on the skills I learned in boarding school kept my mind from going off into the thoughts that fed my fear. As Rosa Parks once said, “Knowing what must be done does away with fear;” and

(3) accept my fear: it’s okay to feel fear. Just acknowledging that I was afraid allowed me to put it down and get focused on what I needed to do. As Lauren Ambrose puts it “The fear is the way through.” Or put another way: “The coward turns attention toward fighting fear; the warrior accommodates it.”

By the end of the week I was much better – hitting all the blues and a few blacks on Whistler. I finally knew what to do on a chair lift. I understood that everyone wipes out – even the best and sometimes even on exiting a chair lift. Shit happens out there. The fun is that it’s usually a soft landing.

Today, when fear, of any kind, is getting the best of me I go boarding. That’s why I headed to Tahoe last week. After a few missed seasons, I was a bit worried about how I’d do so I signed up for a lesson. Ironically, my teacher’s name was Travis. Travis and I got out on the first cable ride up the mountain and marveled at the sun peeking out from the clouds. The snow was perfect – fluffy, pristine. I snapped on my board and did the awkward shuffle to the lift line. That’s where it hit me: all my old fears came raging back. What if I wipe out trying to get off the chair lift? What if I make a fool of myself? Am I too old for this?

Yep, even though I knew what I was doing, I still had fear. It never seems to go away completely and that's the challenge. Courage takes practice. Ever the good student, I turned towards Travis in the lift chair and said, “I’m afraid.” He said, “Okay.”

Not sure what else to say I focused on the upcoming chair lift exit and told myself, “Trust your body. Look where you want to go.” I exited smoothly and joined him at a perch above the run.

He turned to me and said, “Whenever you encounter anything steep you want to stop at the top and plan your route.”

I nodded my head, trying to appear confident but truth be told I was beginning to sweat. I was so sure I was going to flip butt over head in a matter of seconds. Travis, without additional preamble, started his descent. I watched him carve smooth S shapes across the snow. I focused on those shapes and before I knew it, I was riding in his wake.

Then I caught an edge. Then some air and before I could gather my thoughts was thrown into a pillow soft heap of snow. It felt fantastic. I started laughing uncontrollably. I punched back up and continued riding down to Travis.

“Are you okay?” he asked?

“Oh yeah, “ I said, with a big grin on my face. “I had to get that out of the way.”

“Cool ,” he said. “See? Being afraid can be fun.” Then Travis zipped on down the mountain and I was not far behind.