An Interview with Mrs. Patricia Ryan Madson

This past week, I interviewed the author of one of my favorite books, Improv Wisdom, Mrs. Patricia Madson, who also happens to be a key figure in the teaching of improv at Stanford. She started teaching improv at Stanford around 1980, and taught my own improv professor, Dan Klein.


Abubakar: Thank you for taking the time to chat with me, Mrs. Madson, this is such a big honor.

Mrs. Madson: You’re welcome, it’s my pleasure to talk to you.

Abubakar: So I’d like to keep this conversation pretty broad and open-ended. But broadly speaking, I was thinking that it would be cool to know a little more about how it was like teaching at Stanford, especially in the early days, when improv was not as established. And then, once we have covered that, I wanted to get some advice from you about some of my personal challenges when doing improv. How does that sound?

Mrs. Madson: That sounds wonderful.

Abubakar: Great, I’ll be taking notes on my laptop as you speak.

Mrs. Madson: Actually, I should mention that earlier this morning, I was walking around and I found some albums, including a scrapbook with articles from the Stanford newspaper from 1995, that included printed material about my early teaching and the Stanford Improvisers. The article was about how improv was started at Stanford. I made a photographic copy of the article, and I’ll send that to you so you can have that along with the interview.

Abubakar: Great, thank you! That would be wonderful.

The article from 'Alumni Stanford Magazine' that Mrs. Madson sent me.

So I’d like to start by going back to the year 1977. If I recall correctly, you started teaching at Stanford that year. Can you tell me about how you went about starting to teach improv?

Mrs. Madson: Sure, I was hired to head up the undergraduate acting program in the drama department. In those years, before it was called the theater and performance studies department, it was just called the drama department. The department taught students how to put on plays, as well as theater literature, scene design, and so on. There was no such thing as improv, either as a class or even a concept taught in the department. I had barely heard the word, “improv,” although I had done a workshop by Viola Spolin around 1968.

So when I came to Stanford to teach acting, and help undergrads who wanted to study acting, I found that Stanford actors were great at following a script, and doing anything what needed to be done to put on a production. With anything that involved linear thinking, I could get them to do what I wanted. But when I would ask open-ended questions like, “How would you feel if you were this character?” they would clam up and be like deer in headlights. I had to figure out something to shake them up. I wanted them to be comfortable when there was no right answer.

Right about then, I was studying tai chi, and I interested in philosophy, and in the Bay Area, there was a lot of Eastern thought and religion: Buddhism, Daoism, and Sufism. I was doing a workshop on tai chi at Big Sur, when the teacher brought in Keith Johnstone and he started doing improv exercises.

It was almost an answer to my prayer. This is just the technique that is going to help my actors, I thought. I went on to Canada to study with Johnstone, and along the way, I made up some of my games and exercises.

Around 1982-83, I started integrating the games into my acting classes. There was no separate improv class at the time. Students in the acting class started saying, this is great. Can we have our own class with just the improv exercises? I went to department head, and asked if we could have another class. He said sure. At that time, senior lecturers had to teach 7 classes, so this would easily fit in the teaching schedule.

And soon, all sorts of people started showing up, from computer science to history majors. All sorts of strange science and engineer types started showing up in the acting department [laughs].

Abubakar: That’s very interesting, as a strange engineering type myself. Why do you think they showed up? Did they feel that it would complement their engineering education?

Mrs. Madson: You know, I can’t be sure what it was. Something drew them in. Back then, in the class description, I had a line that said something like, “If you’re absolutely sure you can’t think on your feet, this is the class for you!” And I guess the word got around that this class was so different than other classes, where you’re sitting around listening to a lecture, watching a powerpoint.

So, around 1991, the Stanford Improvisers were formed. There was a gaggle of enthusiastic people who took the improv class then and begged me to teach an advanced class. So the class then, Improv 203, it basically became the first Stanford Improvisers. Anyone who signed up for that class became the Stanford Improvisers, and Dan Klein was one of those.

Abubakar: Wow, Dan!

Mrs. Madson: Yes, and I’m still in touch with all 16 of those people. Many of them are now in their 40s and 50s, with mortgages and graying hair [laughs].

And then after that, improv just kept growing. The other significant avenue was through the continuing studies program, which started around 1993. You know, when they asked me to teach the class, I didn’t think adults would want to come play silly games, but I started teaching adult classes, with the title, “Everyday Spontaneity.”

Abubakar: You’re still teaching “Everyday Spontaneity”, correct?

Mrs. Madson: That’s right, Monday nights during the winter quarter. I found that adults loved the class! Adults kept coming up to me and saying, “I have a better relationship with my kids, and you should write a book about what you’ve been teaching us. There’s something bigger here, and you should write about it.” I started writing in the early 1990s, and eventually it became a book in 2005.

That was also the time I retired, when the Drama agreed to hire Dan Klein.

Abubakar: Wow, that’s amazing to hear about the academic lineage of improv! I want to ask a little more about how was it like to create the curriculum of your improv class, when at that time, there were no classes or resources available.

Mrs. Madson: There were resources, actually. At that time, there were some improv students in the Bay Area, and they would invite Keith Johnstone yearly to visit. I invited him to come to Stanford during the summers to teach improv intensives. BATS was founded in the mid-1990s. And that was a group that was teaching and performing improv, regularly, including Dan and Rebecca Stockley among other, that were my source of inspiration.

Because I didn’t know that much about improv, I would hire them to come in and teach space-objects or story-telling. I was like the new guy on the block, and I owe much to BATS.

Abubakar: Great, thanks for sharing that! One thing that I find so interesting is that there’s an ethical base to improv. I mean your book, Improv Wisdom, is a book on improv on the surface, but really it feels to me like a self-help book in disguise, which is why I love it so much. I want to understand, did you intentionally craft improv to be that way, when you designed the curriculum and wrote the book?

Mrs. Madson: Well, that’s a fabulous question. The book evolved into a small philosophy book that used improv to talk about life. It took a long time to get it into that format. I originally thought that I would write a textbook. I never thought I’d write a self-help book. Who am I to give life advice? But throughout my life, I had been interested in world religion, philosophy, and how to live a good life. And for 10 years, I studied with American psychologist David Reynolds and studied his psychology constructive living, which came from a Japanese way of thinking.

I was studying with him frequently. I did a 10-day training with him. And I came back as an assistant. My husband and I began offering those trainings at home. Students would come for 10-day trainings. We would do things like living together, cooking together, cleaning together, cleaning the neighborhood. During that 10-year period, I internalized his philosophy, which can be summarized as: know your purpose, accept your feelings, do what needs to be done, and continue to cultivate your feelings of how much you’re receiving from others.

That really became my life philosophy. And I wanted to teach it to others. Clearly, the Improv Wisdom is not just a book about improvising, and how “yes, and” can make you more positive. I mean even maxims like “wake up to the gift” aren’t normally improv principles, but they could be applied as part of improv techniques.

If you will, the “ethical basis” of the book developed as I grew to understand this constructive living work, and it became part of the fabric of my understanding of life, and these ideas were very powerful, helpful life advice. I don’t have any credentials to write a psychology textbook. So instead, I decided to write a book on improv. It was re-written about a dozen times (I have floppy drives from the late 90s with early drafts of the book) until I had a book called The Spontaneous Life, and it was part textbook and part self-help book.

At that time, I sent it to various publishers, but none were interested. I had some friends who told me, “But why don’t you self-publish?” And I was put in touch with a wonderful editor in Canada. She said, “I’ll be glad to you help you, but I want to know, what do you really want to do with this book?” I replied, “I really want a small philosophy book that uses the ideas of improv to convey ethical ideas”. She told me, “then, write that!”

So I wrote that, and afterwards, she said, “I think this is too good to self-publish.” We sent it out and now, we had 12 different publishers that were interested in this book. It was remarkable, I had to no aspirations to write a best-selling self-help book, but it seems there was lots of interest.

Abubakar: I see, so in the book, you used improv as a vehicle to deliver those ethical maxims that you had learned from your years of study of philosophy and psychology.

Mrs. Madson: That’s exactly right.

Abubakar: Great! I’d like to shift now to personal advice. My reason for taking improv was actually pretty specific. I found it, and continue to find it, very difficult to have spontaneous conversations with people. Do you think improv can help people make small talk and meaningful talk? If so, are there specific techniques that can help with that?

Mrs. Madson: The short answer is “Yes!” Improv essentially requires you to respond fast in real-time, without an opportunity to engage in the worries that we often engage in. In that, it can be helpful in having conversations.

I actually think that there is a crisis in our ability to have conversations. When I was growing up, we didn’t have devices. If you were looking for a good restaurant, you had to talk to somebody. Today, you don’t have to talk to people anymore, you can just Google it.

So in terms of your general conversation, there’s a book that I highly recommend, called Reclaiming Conversation, by Sherry Turkle. I’m walking over to it on my bookshelf now. The subtitle is, “The power of talk in a digital age.” She’s a sociologist who has studied loss of confidence in ourselves, and in our ability to have conversations.

The first thing I would say to you is that, your problem, if you will call it that, is almost universal. A lot of people won’t admit it. But our venues for conversing are fewer and fewer, because you don’t have to, you don’t have to have face-to-face conversations. You don’t have to deal with this fear.

If I can ask you, what is your specific fear do you have when you converse with other people?

Abubakar: It’s that I’ll run out of things to say. I mean, here in this interview, I know I’ll be fine, because I have questions prepared in front of me. But in spontaneous settings – like I run into a friend when I’m walking down the lab building – I’ll often feel like I really have nothing to say, besides “Oh how are you? I’m fine thanks.”

Mrs. Madson: So your fear is running out of things to say. Oh God, well I understand that, but remember two things: (1) we’re all full of stuff to say. What you actually feel is that you won’t have something good or appropriate. We don’t have to have something witty or interesting, and when we remember that, we’ll never be out of anything to say (2) If we can’t think of anything to say, then become more interested in the other person. That takes the focus off of you and shifts it to the other person.

I do think, that some social conversations are very puzzling. Those little noises that we make when we pass each other are not really necessary. It’s fine just to say “wassup” and then go past the other person in the hallway.

That reminds me to of a joke I heard last night, “What do two bees say to each other that you have in a Japanese restaurant?” Do you know the answer?

Abubakar: Hmm, I don’t think so.

Mrs. Madson: “Wassup-bee” (Wasabi) [we both laugh] .

Abubakar: Awesome, thank you for the advice, Mrs. Madson. I’d like to ask you now about specific challenges that I run into in TAPS 103, to ask for your suggestions for how to improve my improv skills.

One of the challenges I struggle with is getting stuck in a static scene, where it just seems the scene isn’t progressing. Like this morning, I started a scene with my partner where I was hammering on a piece of wood. My partner came in and pretended to be my son, and I was building him a treehouse. I responded by telling him to hand me a piece of wood and a mallet, and I continued hammering. And the scene didn’t really go anywhere from there. What should I do in these kind of situations?

Mrs. Madson: I think, that perhaps you haven’t yet covered in class in how to make a story. When you started the story, with the woodshop, you had the foundations of a story: the character, the location, etc. Now, you need to have some sort of purpose. For example, the son could say, “I really need the treehouse to be built by this weekend because I want to take my girlfriend there, I’d like to kiss her there.” Or, the father could say, “You may not know this, son, but I’m not going to be around much longer. I want you have a place where you will be safe.”

Abubakar: Wow, I see what you mean, thanks! There’s another issue I run into, and that is that sometimes, even when a scene does progress, I have noticed that it becomes negative. I’ll give an example. This morning, we had a prompt in which my partner and I were to play ex-lovers who ran into each other at a grocery store. My dialogue with my partner became negative, with each of us blaming each other for shopping there. How do we avoid doing this?

Mrs. Madson: Let me just say one of the reasons that this happens is that it’s pretty easy to go negative. Since improvisers are mostly working out of fear, fear of not having anything to say, and so it’s easy to go with our first impulse to be negative. Try to have a positive spin in the situation that you are working with, if I were teaching you, I would say to you, “Let’s do that scene again, but what would happen if both of you decided to get back together?”

Abubakar: Great thank you, I’ll try doing that in the future. I’d like to end with by asking you: is there any other principle is important but you didn’t have space for in your 13 maxims?

Mrs. Madson: Nope, there’s no maxim that I didn’t include! In fact, maybe I included too many as people can’t remember 13. I’m thinking about writing a second book, which reduces the 13 down to 4: “Attention”, “Acceptance”, “Appreciation”, “Action”. Everything in improv can be reduced to these four A’s. How does that sound to you?

Abubakar: I think that’s a great summary of improv. When you publish it, I’d love to read it!

Mrs. Madson: Oh thank you.

Abubakar: Thank you, Mrs. Madson, and I think this is a good place for us to end the interview, as we’ve reached the end of the hour. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me.


Written on February 9, 2019