I dropped Sierra off at Seedlings this morning and rushed back out the gate. “I’m running home where it’s quiet to write my blog for tomorrow,” I told Victoria and Jonathan. “I’ve got about two hours to write it, and I have no idea yet what it’s going to be about.” My fellow bloggers nodded with understanding (an maybe a little bit of glad-it’s-not-my-deadline relief).

Driving home I ticked through the mental list of topics I’ve been meaning to write about at some point. Nothing was really capturing my excitement. I’d have to–quickly–come up with a completely new topic in order to get my creative juices flowing. But what? I didn’t know.

That’s it, I decided: I’d just have to improvise.

I wasn’t worried. I’m good at improvisation. It’s something I learned way back when I took my first acting classes. The summer when I was about 12 years old, I signed up for a week-long camp offered by the local community theatre. It was an amazing, life-changing experience for me.

It was a pretty awesome camp–we read scenes, discussed character motivation, practiced stage combat and paid homage to Shakespeare (the de facto hero of every budding young thespian). But my most favorite, favorite part of that camp was the theatre games and the improvisation exercises. We played murder mystery, and a game where you had to guess the occupation/identity of the other players. We went up in front of the whole group, two at a time, and acted out scenes that we made up right there on the spot.

That’s me on stage, when I was about 15 years old

Each time I stood on the stage, not quite sure what to do or say at first… and then–“begin scene”–I felt myself transform. I became another person. My partner became another person. And together, as a team, we navigated through whatever random, silly obstacle the director threw our way. “You’re in the grocery store and your kid won’t leave until you buy her some candy.” “You’re at the bus station and your bus is here, but you can’t move because you’ve got gum stuck to your shoe…”

Standing on the stage I felt this incredible sense of confidence, of power, of yes! I can do this! I will never forget that feeling–of just playing, of being exactly right-there in the moment, thinking on my feet, freeing my imagination, risk-taking. I remember feeling completely un-self-conscious on stage–a feat and a revelation for any 12-year-old, but especially for a quiet, insecure 12-year-old like myself.

The stage is where I first found my own voice, often by trying on other people’s voices for a bit, just to see what fit.

Children make up their own plays in Storytime Drama

I think about all of this when I watch my daughters during their theater classes at Sunflower, Theatre Workshop (ages 7-10) and Storytime Drama (ages 4-6). Susan has studied improv at Piven Theatre Workshop in Chicago, and she makes improvisation a huge part of all her theatre classes, even for the littlest children–especially for the littlest children, because improvisation is, after all, what a four-year-old does best. It’s just playing!

Sunflower improv

Even more fantastic, for me, is watching Sunflower’s Teen Improv class. Unlike four-year-olds, teens are not often encouraged to just play. But here they are, and you can see the confidence–and happiness–on the faces of these young people as they navigate through those silly challenges in the improv games.

These are all good skills for kids (and adults) to know. There’s no shortage of random, silly challenges in life, and sometimes you just have to improvise–take what’s thrown at you, play with it a little, and make it work. If you’ve already worked these challenges out in theatre, then chances are you’ll have the confidence to play them out in life too.

© Jaime Greenberg and Sunflower Creative Arts, 2011