Award-winning author and Smith English professor Ruth Ozeki ’80 shares insights into her fourth novel, The Book of Form and Emptiness, which recently received the 2022 Women’s Prize for Fiction and is this year's Smith Reads selection.
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An Improv Comedian’s Guide to Keeping Your Sanity in a Pandemic
As a professional improv comedian, Pam Victor ’88 is uniquely positioned to make the best out of the COVID-19 quarantine. Victor is founder and president of Happier Valley Comedy (HVC), a nonprofit improv comedy theater in western Massachusetts. An optimist by nature and an improv comedian by training, Victor studied with some of the best, including iO Theater’s Susan Messing, Second City’s Rachael Mason and Annoyance Theater’s Mick Napier.
Normally, the schedule at the five-year-old HVC is packed full of classes for children and adults, professional development workshops, and weekly performances—all in person. For now, though, the theater has gone dark. Though Victor and her crew are currently not offering remote workshops and classes, they are hosting a live Zoom YouTube show, HVC LIVE!, six nights a week.
“The skills that I’ve been practicing for the last 20 years are so useful for accepting the reality of this moment and moving forward with positivity,” Victor says. “I’m not saying it’s easy. I do, and I will, have moments of total anxiety, but it gives me a framework.”
Here Victor shares her best advice for taking the techniques of improv comedy and adapting them for real life—especially in stressful times like these.
I’ve been using humor as a life skill since I could talk. That’s just where my head goes. My mom moved around a lot, so I was always the new kid. For me humor was a coping strategy. I couldn’t always be the cool kid, but at least I could disarm people with humor.
Improvisation is like living your life on stage. That’s why the skills that go into becoming an accomplished improviser are useful offstage. The definition of improvisation is acceptance of the reality of the moment and the agreement to move forward with positivity. This crisis is happening now; we need to accept that instead of spending time resisting it.
Sadness lives in the difference between the reality and what we want the reality to be. I don’t like it, but this is happening now. So how can I move forward given that reality? That involves something we call the “yes and ….” The fear-based response is to say “no” automatically. When our winter session was cut in half because of the virus, I proposed to my business partner that we continue virtually. There were a thousand reasons why that wasn’t going to work, but I said, “Can we just spend 10 minutes ‘yes and-ing …’ this idea. Let’s explore all the ways it can work.” To me that’s more positive.
This crisis has brought many challenges. Sometimes our responses to those challenges bring more anxiety. Given this reality, I suggest two things that may make some anxieties more manageable. One is to take an appropriate amount of time (whatever that is for you) to feel bad about it. After that time—stop. The next step is, given this reality, where could you find moments of joy and ease? And if there’s not even a molecule of joy, I substitute the word “peace.”
Two things everyone can do right now to feel better. First, schedule inner-burden breaks. If not having a job is the biggest burden for you right now, for example, schedule a day (or even an hour if that’s all that is practical) to take a break from that heaviness. Nothing can be solved by worrying about it 24/7. Second, no problem solving when you’re horizontal. When your mind starts racing and you can’t sleep take your brain away from the problem. Focus on something else like a happy podcast or a meditation.
Pick something that represents success and hope for the future. Before I closed down the theater [for the quarantine], I found a bottle of champagne that someone had given us. I put it in our minifridge at the theater and I took a picture of it. I sent it to my business partner and wrote, “We’re going to open this bottle of champagne after we have our first show back in the theater.” Write out your own idea or keep a picture of that idea right next to your computer. For me, I’m really looking forward to drinking that champagne.