The Lessons of Improvisation

August 16, 2022

This past weekend we saw our niece Alli, who is an improv comedian in Chicago, in two performances. Alli has been funny all her life–the family lore is full of Alli stories, and I don’t think anyone who knows and loves her was surprised when she chose comedy as her career path. She is also a substitute in the Chicago Public School system. Just imagine how often she needs a comedic attitude and improvisational skills to get through her teaching days!

We loved seeing her perform and oh, how good it was to laugh and laugh and laugh.

Improv comedy, it seems to me, offers good life lessons.

From the moment these performers walked on stage they had no idea what was going to happen from one minute to the next. In both shows they were given the bare minimum as a beginning and from that moment on anything could happen. Their job was to be completely present to what the others were saying and doing. They needed to react and respond as the narrative unfolded.

At the same time each performer adopted a persona for the show, and they needed to be true to that character. How would that character react and respond in the given situation? In a manner of minutes the essence of the character became clear through physical actions, the tone of voice, as well as words.

We each live an improvisational life. Who knows what will happen one minute from the next? We can plan and make lists–and that is often necessary and helpful, but at the same time we need to be able to open to what is unfolding and changing before our very eyes. The present moment. There is not always time to say, “Time out. I need to write the next scene. I need to decide how to move the plot forward.” Nope, something happens or someone says or does something, and the next line, the next step is yours. Now. It is time to improvise..

When I was a freshman in college, I remember the junior counsellors on my floor often saying when life got a bit crazy and chaotic, “Punt. It is punt time.” Do what needs to be done. You can’t always wait and weigh the pros and cons. It is time to act and maybe even take a chance.

Now I am more apt to adopt “pause” than “punt,” but I know there are times when pausing, at least longer than a second is not possible. It is time to improvise when the best plans are not possible, when life gets in the way, when the unexpected and often unwanted occurs.

Fifty-one years ago my husband’s mother died of a brain aneurysm–a month before our August wedding. In the months of planning before the wedding day, how could we possibly have anticipated the loss that would accompany us on our walk down the aisle? We were 23, mere babies, and along with the improvisation that marriage itself requires, we had to figure out how to respond and cope with such deep sadness, even as we were embarking with such joy on our lives as a new couple. We did the best we could, but we were not yet as practiced in the art and skill of improvisation.

Part of becoming a good improviser is knowing oneself. Who am I and what is my essence? Instead of playing a role, developing a character, I respond from my own ground of being, the person God created me to be. How helpful that is as life diverts us from what we envisioned for ourselves.

Here’s hoping that laughter is part of the journey.

An Invitation

When was the last time you had to improvise? How did that go? I would love to know.


We saw Alli perform in Hitch Cocktails at the Annoyance Theater and also on one of Second City’s stages in Clued In Be prepared to laugh!!!

One thought on “The Lessons of Improvisation

  1. How wonderful that you were able to see your niece in her show in Chicago! I’m in the Chicago suburbs, but we don’t get to the city often. We were just there last week though for my birthday.

    I like how you compare our life to an improv show. Good food for thought. We can think we’re prepared for things but really, anything can throw us off course.


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