How I Play My Way Sane
Adapting improv exercises helped me decrease anxiety and stress less.
Posted November 20, 2020
I remember my academic book, Theatrical Improvisation, Consciousness, and Cognition, had just been published. I was living in downtown Manhattan with my two ridiculous…ly cute miniature pinschers. They were so cute in their little dog sweatshirts that Sandra Bernhard passed by us once and pointed and marveled at them. At least, that’s how I remember it.
Anyway, I was allegedly an expert on how improv affected the mind. I knew it helped people find a state of flow. It helped them be more creative and less in their heads. It helped them overthink less and feel more confident and uninhibited. Yet there I was with an almost crushing feeling of anxiety. Even with my adorable pups, I struggled to chat people up at the dog park, and I really struggled with the overwhelming noise and crowds of the city.
I felt like I should know better. I mean, I knew that improv personally made me feel more charismatic and connected, but that insight just wasn’t translating to my everyday life in the city. So I decided to translate everything I knew about improv and its benefits to my everyday life. I created what I called everyday games, games that were based on improv principles and that I could do when I was just going about my everyday routine.
These games grew into what is now Play Your Way Sane: 120 Improv-Inspired Exercises to Help You Calm Down, Stop Spiraling, and Embrace Uncertainty, which Simon & Schuster is publishing January 19, 2021 and is available for pre-order now (just saying). The games are part of 12 lessons for life inspired by improv, starting with becoming more mindful and ending with making big choices. These games and lessons have truly helped me to overthink and worry less and be more social and connected with the people around me.
12 Improv-Inspired Lessons
1. Setting the Stage
One of the first things improvisers do in a rehearsal is just kind of walk around and notice stuff. I call this setting the stage, and it’s really a kind of mindfulness. The idea is that improvisers need to stop thinking about what happened before rehearsal and what might happen after. Instead, they need to pay attention to the people and space around them so they can be more present and in the moment.
Adapting some of these exercises for everyday life has been an absolute game-changer for me. Instead of obsessively planning the next five years of my life or calculating how to pay off debt or worrying about that mistake I made 13 years ago, I just point to things around me and say what they are or pretend I’m a forest ranger studying the flora and fauna. This gets me out of my head and into the present moment.
2. Calm the Hell Down
Improvisers also know the importance of relaxing and centering themselves before they take the stage. They do breathing exercises and stretching to focus their energy. This helps them be more engaged and connected once they take the stage.
I for sure know that breathing and visualization exercises help me manage stress in my everyday life, too. There’s no reason for me to bottle things up and then explode in a fit of rage later. Instead, relaxation exercises can help manage stress throughout the day.
3. Finding the Game
There’s a concept in improv called “Finding the Game.” This means that improvisers are always on the lookout for fun patterns to exaggerate or play around with. For example, if someone calls a winter hat a Toboggan, the game might be calling items by their regional names. Finding the game helps improvisers approach scenes more playfully and gives everyone something fun to focus on.
This finding the game concept is also great for real life. If I want to lead a life with more joy and curiosity, finding the game can help me focus on childlike discoveries, instead of all the doom and gloom out there.
4. Killing Debbie Downer (Getting and Staying Positive)
Improvisers are also positive. I don’t necessarily mean optimistic, but they are looking for what’s going right in scenes and what could be fun to explore. They’re not focused on what’s going wrong. Improvisers tell each other they’ve got each other’s backs and then they walk the walk by making the most of everyone’s contributions to scenes.
I certainly try to practice this kind of positivity in my real life, too. By focusing on what is good about me and the people and places around me, I prime myself to see more and more good things. When I focus on the bad, I see more and more bad things.
5. Thou Shalt Not Be Judgy
Improvisers are also open-minded. If I’m thinking about how dumb my scene partner is or how awful the audience's suggestion was, I’m not going to be in the moment enough to connect with my teammates and create an entertaining show.
There are definitely ways to adapt improv exercises to help me be less judgmental in real life, too. One of my favorites is called New Choice. Whenever I start thinking judgmental thoughts, I tell myself to make a new choice. I keep doing this until I land on a much more acceptable and much less judgmental thought.
6. World of Geniuses
One of my favorite improv principles is to make everyone on stage look good. Del Close famously said to treat your fellow improvisers like the geniuses, poets, and artists they are. It may sound cheesy, but when everyone is bending over backward to make each other look great and succeed, scenes tend to go much more smoothly.
I think the same is true in real life. When we do what we can to make others look good, they’re more likely to succeed.
7. Your Mom Was Wrong (You Aren’t Special)
Improv is also the ultimate team sport. There are no divas or stars. Everyone needs to contribute and take turns for the scene to unfold.
This may be the most important lesson to learn from improv. When you make everything about you, when you’re the center of your universe, you’re missing all kinds of opportunities to connect with other people. You’re also stuck in your head thinking about you, you, you, instead of enjoying the moment with someone else, else, else.
8. Shut Up and Listen
Improv also requires an intense, almost otherworldly level of listening. You have to pay careful attention to all the details your partners are dishing out so that you can take them and run with it.
There are tons of improv exercises and techniques that we can borrow for our everyday lives to be better listeners, from asking for clarification to repeating the most important parts of what someone just told you.
The first part of the improv Yes And rule is the “yes” part. Improvisers need to go along with each other’s ideas, instead of shooting each other down. This goes back to that idea of supporting each other and making each other look good. If my partner says we’re in the kitchen, we’re in the kitchen. This way we can move on to more important details like who we are and what our relationship is like.
Now, saying yes all the time is not the point in improv, and it’s not the way to go in real life. Instead, I think it’s important to go along with people’s ideas more. For example, my daughter wants to learn how to do things on her own. Instead of always saying no, I try to let her struggle her way toward independence more often.
10. And What?
The next part of the Yes And principle is adding to the reality your partner is establishing. It’s not enough to just go along with ideas; you also need to add some of your own to create a collaborative improvised scene.
You guessed it. You need to contribute to conversations and discussions with your own details, too. It’s not enough to listen and say ”yeah, uh-huh.” You also need to contribute to your real-life scenes to have more meaningful interactions with others.
11. Embracing Mistakes
There’s also a concept in improvisation called justification, which means improvisers make mistakes work for them instead of letting them ruin the scene.
Adapting improv games for our everyday lives can help us deal with the feelings of shame and embarrassment associated with making mistakes. Instead of letting mistakes get us down, we can fess up to them and keep it moving.
12. Making Big Choices
Improvisers also tend to be rewarded when they make big choices. It would be super boring if all the performers just stood timidly on the back wall hemming and hawing. Instead, improvisers take big risks knowing that their teammates will make it work and by turning it into a compelling scene.
Life works similarly. When we stand by timidly, we’re missing out on all sorts of growth opportunities. That’s why I’ve adapted improv exercises and games to help myself step off the back wall and take some chances.
Play Your Way Sane
Playing my improv-inspired exercises has helped me deal with my anxiety and disconnection. I now find myself turning small talk into a game and staying calm when I’m maneuvering my way through the grocery store. COVID has exacerbated stress and anxiety levels, so now’s the perfect time to center ourselves, find the game, jump off that back wall, and play.
Drinko, C. (2021). Play your way sane: 120 improv-inspired exercises to help you calm down, stop spiraling, and embrace uncertainty. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.
Drinko, C. (2013). Theatrical improvisation, consciousness, and cognition. New York, NY: Palgrave.