Yes, And... What Improv Can Teach Us About Navigating Challenging Times


Rachel Hamilton, member of ITPI's board of directors and active practitioner, shares the importance of an ever-evolving practice inspired by her 25 years experience as an Improv directer.

How has your experience in Improv helped inform and guide your personal practice?

The first thing that comes to mind is that Improv has been wonderful empathy training for me. In order to play a character, I need to take on their world view without judgement, which has allowed me the opportunity to really “get” people from the inside.  From any person’s internal logic, their choices make perfect sense.  As an Improv teacher, I have always been amazed at how my students can quickly and easily access the experience of someone very different than themselves. 

For instance, I can endow a student with a particular perspective - life is a banquet and I am here to enjoy it all - and they can embody that perspective immediately.  It’s like we each have the whole library of how to be human within us and given the world/culture/family into which we are born, we have taken on a discreet selection from all of the possibilities that becomes our personality, and yet, we can still feel into all the rest of the ways to be human.  In these divided times, I have found this capacity to be very useful.  Not only can I see the humanity in others, I also know that I can change the channel of my own inner experience at will, which can be very useful.

Empathy has been a foundational element at the core of my personal practices.  I practice meeting others with kindness and curiosity and I do my best to give people the benefit of the doubt because I understand that everyone is doing the best that they can at every moment, myself included.  Understanding that we all want the same things (safety, belonging, cake, etc.) allows me to love you already, which opens up all sorts of opportunities for connection.  Seeking connection with others is also a core practice for me.

Another one of the key tenets of Improv is that we learn to discover rather than invent.   As Improvisers, we enter a scene with no script and no plan and together, by paying close attention to each other, we discover what is happening.  It’s way more fun to play in the realm of not-knowing-yet than it does to play from a place of certainty.

For instance,

If one player initiates a scene by saying something like, Oh Judith, I am so happy that we got married yesterday and here we are on our honeymoon on a balcony in Venice, looking up at the moon, that is an invention.  Yes, we now have the safety of each knowing our who/what/where, And we have quickly narrowed the possibilities of what we might have discovered together.  A scene that emerges via discovery might look more like this:

Two players enter the scene, one looks at the other with lovey dovey eyes which prompts the other player to respond in kind.

Player #1;  Good morning, Beautiful.

Player #2:  And a good morning to you, Handsome.

(They embrace.)

Player #1: We did it!

Player #2:  Yes we did.

Player #1:  (gestures to the landscape in front of them). And would you get a load of this enchanted place.

Player #2:  Indeed.  Sacramento always takes my breath away.

In order to allow the scene to unfold organically, we need to practice resisting the urge to lock down a story prematurely. We get to build something together and open ourselves to the possibility of being surprised. Certainty shuts us down to learning while discovery opens us up to possibility.

My personal practice has been a long and windy process of discovery. I have found elements of different practices that speak to me and I have cobbled them together.  In fact, I discovered ITP at Esalen, when I signed up last minute for an ITP workshop without knowing anything about it.  I came in with a curious mind and an open heart and discovered this amazing path and community.  What an excellent and enduring surprise!

"Yes, And..." is a key element within improvisation. What ways can our ITP community use this approach to adapt and evolve in these current times? 

I find Yes, And to be an elegant way to capture the truth of the complexity of being alive.  It creates space for the truth that many things are happening simultaneously all the time.

  • Yes, I am sad about the pandemic shutting the world down And I am grateful for the extended time at home with my partner and my doggie.
  • Yes I am a kind and loving human And I’m so angry I want to scratch your eyes out right now.
  • Yes, there is so much pain in the world And there is so much beauty.

Yes, And gives us language to express the complexity of everything.

"How are you?" becomes a far easier question to answer when I employ Yes, And.

I’m fine.  And not fine.  And anxious.  And encouraged.  And exhausted. And motivated.

Like Whitman said, I contain multitudes. Yes ,And gives me the language to express that.

What unexpected ways have you and your practice evolved in these past few years?

I have slowed way down. The pandemic gave me the opportunity to live my days with far more spaciousness, with much more time between experiences for integration.  I  discovered that it feels wonderful to do less and give what I do more of my full attention. These days, I practice not-rushing. I have noticed that when I am not in a rush, even being stuck in traffic is not a problem; it’s an opportunity to relax and listen to a book or podcast in my comfortable car. Rushing can rob me of the joy of the moment.

I’ve also been more discerning about my relationships, feeding those that feel honest, juicy and generative and letting go of those that don’t.

In what ways do you envision our ITP community evolving and connecting as we move through 2022 and beyond? 

As the wonderful Max Gaenslin expressed in our first session of Seekers and Sages, and I’m paraphrasing here, we human beings need to learn how to talk to one another. I love that ITP is creating curriculum to foster human relational skills like cooperation and how to listen to our soul.  Where else are we going to learn that?  By having a foundation of being able to ground and center ourselves, I think ITP can be a place where we continue to teach and practice communication skills, learning to stay engaged with people with whom we disagree.

Let’s stay nimble and keep learning together.  As George Leonard liked to say, “expect nothing, be ready for anything.”  Yes, And to that!

Also, fun.  Let’s have lots of that.