Making It Up as They Go Along

Patricia Ryan teaches the practicality of a wild imagination.

May/June 2002

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Making It Up as They Go Along

Peter Fox

A passerby might mistake it for an old-style insane asylum. Inside, people are gesticulating wildly. They are marching around flapping their wings and clucking like chickens. Or identifying common objects with words that make no sense. One woman, a puzzled look on her face, stares intently at what’s directly in front of her. It’s a chair. She appears completely dumbfounded. Then, at the top of her lungs, she yells “Poodle!” An older woman, her head buried in a thickly ribbed turtleneck, points at a wall and shouts “Brickbat!”

This is no insane asylum, however. By many accounts, what goes on here is one of the most sane and practical activities undertaken at Stanford—Patricia Ryan’s improvisation classes. Here, occasionally making a fool of oneself goes hand in hand with the development of life skills. Ryan’s students learn to take risks and embrace the unexpected.

During an improvised tug-of-war, students clench their jaws and strain at an imaginary rope while teetering above an imaginary line drawn in imaginary sand before eventually tumbling over or jumping up in victory. Watching the scene, Ryan (the woman who yelled “Brickbat!”) stands back and, in complete seriousness, asks, “Did you get metaphysical rope burns?”

Participating in Ryan’s structured mayhem means more than just letting go of convention and inhibition or getting metaphysical rope burns. It requires discipline and a conscious focus on reality. And punctuality. After 25 years at the Farm, Ryan recognizes that all students think their excuse for being late is a valid one. Or that their circumstances are somehow “special.” That may be, but in Ryan’s classes, three late arrivals equals an absence. And each absence drops a grade by one-third.

“I’m interested in helping people pay attention to reality,” Ryan says. “When you miss part of your life, there’s no way to make it up. There is no way to ‘make up’ [a missed improv class]. There’s no way to have someone give you notes that give you the experience of being with others. Improvising is about showing up for the life you are going to experience.”

Ryan’s pedagogy is rooted in the work of the English improv guru Keith Johnstone. In his book Impro (Theatre Arts Books, 1989) he wrote, “There are people who prefer to say ‘Yes,’ and there are people who prefer to say ‘No.’ Those who say ‘Yes’ are rewarded by the adventures they have, and those who say ‘No’ are rewarded by the safety they attain.” Ryan believes life, no matter how dire, is “an awesome gift” to be experienced fully. She worries that too many Americans, rather than experiencing what’s before them, are obsessed with “not getting mine” or with trying to change that which cannot be changed.

As a teacher, however, she says, “I don’t tell people what they ought to be doing. My job is opening a door and [helping them] see what they might find when they walk in.”

Ryan also teaches a Continuing Studies course called Improvising Our Lives: An Introduction to Constructive Living. At its most fundamental, Constructive Living asks what is controllable in life and what is not. “It’s more of a Buddhist-based philosophy of paying attention in the moment, being grateful and appreciative of what’s around you, accepting your feelings and not just trying to be happy all the time,” says a former student. “It really makes you rethink the need for years and years of therapy.”

Ryan herself has little patience with “navel gazing and me on me on me.” Obliquely referring to our national dependence on counseling and therapy, she says, “I’m not interested in how the Buddha got enlightened but in what did he do when he got up.” Ryan encourages participants to focus on what’s in front of them, on what needs to happen right now and on acting on it.

Although many of Ryan’s students put her teachings to work in the performing arts, even more apply them in day-to-day living. “It’s absolutely applicable to the real world,” says David Duncan Atchison, a project manager with Lockheed Martin who has taken several Continuing Studies classes with Ryan. Given that Atchison works with NASA scientists who study the effects of hypergravity on humans, it’s not immediately clear how Ryan’s world of nonexistent objects and imaginary scenarios would be useful. “You’re just that much more ready to handle whatever gets thrown at you,” Atchison explains. He concedes that he and his colleagues script their presentations “down to the last word.” But, he adds, “at the end, managers are going to ask questions you may not have thought of before.”

Michal Pasternak, a co-terminal student in mechanical engineering, grew up in Palo Alto and has rarely left. Now she plans to move to New York and credits Ryan with giving her “the guts to take that kind of risk.” Says Pasternak, “She really believes that life finds you if you have your eyes open.”

“It changed my life,” says Jennifer Chou, who was coached by Ryan for four years as a member of the Stanford Improvisers, a popular campus troupe Ryan founded in 1991. “I went from being someone who played it safe by saying ‘No’ to someone who, with effort, says ‘Yes.’” For Chou, ’00, MA ’01, a high school English teacher, applying Ryan’s lessons at work means trying “to let myself be diverted” by her students. “Sometimes it’s hard, because you have to get through the lesson plan in 45 minutes—but if they are interested in something, I don’t deny them and force them to go back to grammar. There have been several times when I’ve let the kids take control, with good results.”

Chou says the public perception of improv is quite different from what Ryan teaches. For many, actor Robin Williams stands out as a spontaneous genius, an improviser ready for all situations. But for Ryan, improv is not about goofing around or seeing who can be funniest. Hers might be called the Dale Carnegie approach to improv. It’s about agreeing with people, going with their ideas, trying to make them happy and saying “Yes” to whatever comes along. Says Chou, “My definition of funny has been revised. I had always tried to be funny at [everyone else’s] expense. Until Patricia’s class, I didn’t realize it wasn’t worth it.”

Despite her hard-nosed attendance policy, it appears that everybody loves Patricia. Or nearly everyone. In 1977, she was hired to head the undergraduate acting program. At the time, the head of the department was on sabbatical. Upon his return, he invited Ryan to lunch. She was expecting a pleasant, let’s-get-to-know-each-other chat. Instead, she was told, “You were hired in error.” But as a senior lecturer with a continuing appointment, she could not be let go as long as the department needed an acting instructor.

Twenty-one years later, poetic justice (if not sweet revenge) was hers when the accumulated acclaim from several generations of students brought Ryan the Lloyd W. Dinkelspiel Award for “distinctive contributions to undergraduate education” at Stanford. “Certainly it’s the most wonderful thing that’s happened to me,” Ryan says, “because being a teacher is what I am and what I would want to be remembered for.”

Ryan also is pleased that, after much lobbying on her part, Stanford now grants senior lecturers a quarter’s sabbatical for every 10 years they have taught. She plans to take off the next two fall quarters to work on a new book about applying improv to everyday living. And to find a publisher for The Spontaneous Life, a book she has spent the last 10 years writing.

One of the warm-up exercises Ryan uses has students shout “Yes!” to anything that is suggested. At the end of one class, a student meekly approaches her. “Is it okay if I fake it?” he wants to know. A small smile of bemusement appears on Ryan’s face before she reminds him, “This is an acting class.” Teacher and student then begin to imagine what the world would be like if only everyone would just say “Yes” to whatever is before them. Another door has begun to open.

Robert L. Strauss, MA/MBA ’84, a frequent contributor to Stanford, will become the Peace Corps country director for Cameroon in June.

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