I Won't Let the Mess in Washington Affect My Improv

Illustration for article titled I Won't Let the Mess in Washington Affect My Improv
Image: Shutterstock

While I am frustrated by the divisions in present-day American society, and the terrible erosion of democratic norms in Washington, I can’t let that affect my progress in my level 3 improv class. I believe that comedy transcends politics—especially my comedy, which is really improving, my teacher says.


Sometimes, when CNN is on at the airport and I have nothing else to do, I hear ugly rhetoric coming out of the White House and it can get me kind of steamed. But then I think: all the more reason for me to really work on connecting with my scene partners, so I can bring joy to the 12-15 people who will attend my graduation show in two weeks. What the world really needs, I think, is for me to get out of my head and start making clear emotional choices onstage.

As an artist, I completely agree with singer-songwriter Jason Mraz when he told The Hill on Wednesday that he can’t let the dirty politics of the day affect his ability to tell stories through song. When he said, “I am more spirit-based, and more human-emotion based [...] and sometimes I feel like that’s absent in our political system,” I said to myself, “Same.” Like Jason, I too am of the mind that in Washington, “there’s a lot of combat and harsh words and I prefer kindness and generosity.”

Generosity is really important in improv: you have to give your scene partner “gifts,” or interesting details that they can work with, which is something I’ve gotten pretty good feedback on. It would be nice if certain people in my class would start giving me better gifts, but there’s a part of me that actually appreciates being challenged.

When I look at what’s happening in the Trump administration—all the lying and racism and probable criminal activity—I just don’t get it. It’s really not what I’m about. And I know what I’m about, because as I move up through the levels of my improv theater, I’m learning so much about myself as a human being and as a creative. I’ve really opened up, everyone says—I can do accents now, for example. But it was a long road to get here! During one class back in level 2, a substitute teacher told me: “Ellie, you’re asking for things that you’re not prepared to receive.” I learned a lot from that perceptive feedback. I think maybe it also applies to America.

Ultimately, I’m too focused on improving my scene work to spend much time thinking about, say, the decades-long ramifications of Mitch McConnell’s court-packing initiative, or the fact that a White House staffer made fun of a senator for dying and then didn’t apologize. When I finally bring my unique brand of humor to the New York City comedy scene, via an open mic night or maybe an independent (“indie”) improv team, if anyone asks me to join one, I think my significant artistic contributions to society will become clear.

Ellie is a freelance writer and former senior writer at Jezebel. She is pursuing a master's degree in science journalism at Columbia University in the fall.



Brave of Mraz to come out as “human-emotion based.” Bravo.