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Pandemic got you down? Snap back with an improv class


COVID has obviously kept us all away from each other for a long time. Vaccinations, though, are now allowing people to step into the world again. Reentry can be tough, and some are looking for a little help, help which comes in the form of two words - yes and.

MOLLY GRAHAM: The agreement that we make when we decide to do improv together is that we are not going to second-guess each other's ideas.

MARTIN: This is Molly Graham. She's a teacher at the Washington Improv Theater in Washington, D.C. She has taught virtually on and off during the pandemic, and now her classes are finally back in person.


GRAHAM: Wow. Such a nice welcome for being late.


MARTIN: Granted, everyone is still masked up, but now they can share a physical space and riff off each other's movements.

GEOFF BLIZARD: OK. Shake it out a little bit.

MARTIN: Molly's teaching assistant Geoff Blizard leads the class in an exercise.

BLIZARD: Let's lead with our shoulders. Lean with our shoulders - what does that mean? You're walking around, leading with your shoulders.

MARTIN: I see this one guy in the room hunched over with his shoulders in front like he's embarrassed or ashamed. Then he notices that most everyone else is walking with one shoulder out in a super confident way. So this guy changes to fit what everyone else is doing. I caught up with him a couple days after class.

DREW: My name is Drew. I'm 34. And I have recently started a new job doing advocacy, whatever that means. I'm still figuring it out.

MARTIN: Drew moved to Washington, D.C., with his partner roughly 16 months ago, and in the beginning, he said it was really tough.

DREW: I just felt really bad about myself because I was - 'cause I didn't have anything to, like, occupy my day except for applying for jobs. It was easy for me to only focus on the negatives.

MARTIN: So he signed up for an improv class.

DREW: I have never done improv before. I've seen it before and hated it.

MARTIN: (Laughter) Say more about that.

DREW: Yeah. I'm just, like, cringing in my seat the whole time 'cause it's just not - like, I can see these people that, like, want to be funny. They want these jokes to connect. They want it to work. Like, maybe they have dreams about being the next Tina Fey or Amy Poehler or something or getting noticed and this working out somehow. But it just isn't working on stage.

MARTIN: Oh (laughter).

Drew shows up every week at the Source Theater for his improv class. But it takes effort.

DREW: Like, when Tuesday night comes around, I'm not like, oh, yeah, here we go. I love this. I really want to get off my couch and go out into the world and go make jokes with strangers.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

DREW: But it does make me socialize with people. It does make me have to live in the moment. I can't obsess about the perfect thing to say or do.

MARTIN: And that's your MO?

DREW: That's - yeah, that's - that can be pretty paralyzing, figuring out what's the most efficient way to walk to the grocery store. Should I go this way or that way? And I can just stand at the intersection for a minute or two. But I'm trying to get into that mind space of - just make a mistake 'cause you'll still have something.


MARTIN: OK, we're back in the classroom, and there's a new exercise happening.

BLIZARD: Who wants to walk like a cowboy? Walk like a cowboy, whatever that means to you. I don't know.


GRAHAM: Were any of those just, like, immediately clear to you? Or were some of them just like, OK, I'm just going to do this, and I literally have no idea what it's going to be like?

MARTIN: A young woman speaks up.

SABRIYYA PATE: I don't think that a cowboy or cowgirl counts as a physicality. I think, like, whenever you try to determine what a category of people are, you know, inherently prejudices are going to come out.

MARTIN: We find out later her name is Sabriyya Pate.

PATE: I was born in D.C., but both my parents and all my relatives are from Nigeria.

MARTIN: Sabriyya graduated from Duke back in 2019 and was a few months into her first job when the pandemic hit. She was the only Black woman in that space, so when everyone started working from home, it was a relief for her.

PATE: When George Floyd was murdered and protests erupted throughout D.C., I think it would've been really hard to go from protesting, you know, having police throw tear gas at protesters, and then the next day go to work and pretend like it was all right.

MARTIN: Another year went by. COVID kept her home, sequestered with a new puppy named Lola. After getting vaccinated, she looked for a way to move back into the world. She had tried improv in college, so she thought, why not?

Is it living up to your expectations?

PATE: I was just thinking about, like, how I could articulate this, and I didn't really find the words. But I think improv is, in particular, an art form where, you know, the identities of the people performing really do matter...


PATE: ...In terms of, like, where humor is found. And, you know, that's just an ongoing issue for all improv is that it's pretty white. And sometimes...

MARTIN: We should say, your class - I was in your class.

PATE: (Laughter) That's right.

MARTIN: I mean, you're one of just a couple of people of color. It's overwhelmingly a white group.

PATE: Yeah. So I think just, like, personally, I've been grappling with the fact that I would love to be able to share more aspects of my identity as a Black woman, but I don't know how educated my peers are about racial issues and the intersections of race and class and gender, and I don't want to throw them in a position where I'm setting up a scene that they don't understand. And when I'm thinking about all these things, I get lost in my head. Then at that point, I lose, perhaps, what makes improv improv, which is the spontaneity of it.

MARTIN: But on that random Tuesday night in an old classroom above the Source Theater in Washington, Sabriyya and Drew were really trying - trying to get out of their head and release all the stress and anxiety of the last year and a half.

PATE: I think no matter what, it's going to be a learning experience. I do laugh at the jokes that are made most of the time.

DREW: I do want to see if I'm good at improv. Like, maybe I am the next Amy Poehler...

MARTIN: I love that answer.


DREW: ...Or Tina Fey or something, like, 'cause I think I'm funny sometimes. So maybe it'll work. Maybe I can be creative. Maybe it's something fun. I really am skeptical, but, like, also, I want to try.

MARTIN: There was one more exercise for them to try before we left class that night. The students stood in a circle, and one by one, they each jumped in and started singing a song. Everyone was supposed to sing along. No room for judgment - just yes and.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) ...Believe when I say, I want it that way. Tell me why...


Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
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