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    Improvising Our Way Through Challenging Times By Mary Fridley

    By Mary Fridley


    I occasionally use this column to share the writings of people I admire, and high on that list is Sally Fox, a “writer, consultant, and coach ready to help you redesign your life.” She is also one of the most curious, thoughtful, caring, and creative people I have the pleasure of knowing. I first met Sally a few years ago when she interviewed my Joy of Dementia partner Dr. Susan Massad and me for her Vital Presence podcast. Since then, I never miss listening to her podcasts or reading her blogs, both of which are available on Sally’s website, Engaging Presence. 


    One of the things Sally and I have in common is a shared love of improvisation as a way to live life more joyously and to navigate the uncertain times in which we live. So I was thrilled when her March 3 blog so wonderfully introduced us to Life as improv – nine rules for a better performance.” And though I rarely tell people to follow the rules, I’m happy to make an exception in this case, so please enjoy a (slightly) edited of “Life as improv…” – and then share it with everyone you know.


    In my sixties, I did a number of improvisational theatre classes, until the pandemic hit. I miss the fun, but no matter. Life has become increasingly like improv. For example, last week, among my friends:


    • One sees a woman, standing befuddled in the supermarket with a food coupon in her hand. She offers to help. Soon, the woman is crying in her arms, having just fled Ukraine.
    • Another flies to Europe to photograph Ukraine and then discovers that he is more needed feeding refugees in Warsaw.
    • A third is diagnosed with dementia.


    None of this is good or bad. It’s what happens as life throws us another ball and asks us to respond, to stay in the moment, to be ready to let go of what we thought we knew and move accordingly.


    I need more skill in staying “in the moment,” which is why I’ll probably take another improv class. For now, I’ve reconstructed some rules of improv that might be applicable to troubling times.

    Sally’s “rules” for improv in troubling times:


    • Say “yes/and” and “both/and.” “Yes/and” is the phrase improv-ers use to keep action advancing during a scene. Whatever your partner says, you say “yes, and,” and build on what they said. Saying, “No, and” or “No, but” kills the movement and fun. “Yes/And’s” cousin, “Both/and,” is a phrase that allows us to embrace contrasting or opposing ideas. “I have dementia” and “I have a rich, creative life” aren’t mutually exclusive when we hold them in the tension of “Both/and.”

    • Think like an ensemble. No one and no country is an island. We need each other. Resolving any of the world’s major problems (war, climate change, refugees) is a team game; no country plays alone.

    • Make your partner look great. Appreciating the good can be so valuable. I’m taking an art class that includes people from around the world, who bring many different levels of art experience. In a competition-free environment, we support the good in each other’s work (which includes my very beginning efforts). Art schools are notorious for shredding self-esteem and killing the childlike joy that makes one want to create. Today’s times call for enhancing joy, making others look and feel great.

    • Be present, not clever. The world is full of clever people, but cleverness without depth and caring is hollow and can even be evil. Let’s practice presence, the ability to stay connected and calm in the midst of whatever is happening.

    • Notice life’s offers. Life is always making us offers, opportunities to act. We may not like some of them, like war, disease, or the “opportunity” for a tax audit. When we respond positively to an offer that’s going to be there whether or not we wanted it initially, we step into our roles as actors, with agency, creating the life around us.

    • Focus on intentions, not outcomes. Many situations in the world are complex. It’s hard to have specific goals to deal with them. Goals are fine as long as they don’t blind us to what is happening in front of us.

    • Let it go. The world changes quickly. I can treasure the past, but if I hold on to it too tightly, I bog myself down. I can’t manipulate my way into the future by insisting on having what I want. When I’m not lugging the past or chasing the future, I have a better chance of being present with what is happening now.

    • When it starts, it starts. When it ends, it ends. Life sometimes throws a message that tells us it’s time to move on. In an improv class, when it ends, you stop. Take a break. Change. Whatever will be coming next will undoubtedly be interesting.

    • Celebrate no matter what.  I once took a super fun class in Kentucky clogging, a dance class that felt like tap dancing in clogs. I loved the instructor when he said, “If you’re performing on stage and fall off, jump back up, take a bow, and say “TA-DAH!” Whatever our performance in life looks like, we can always claim victory. 


    Mary Fridley is on the faculty at the East Side Institute in NYC, co-creator and leader of The Joy of Dementia (You Gotta Be Kidding!), and coordinator of Reimagining Dementia: A Creative Coalition for Justice. An accomplished teacher and workshop leader, Mary practiced social therapy for 12 years and uses the social therapeutic approach as a teacher and workshop leader. She is the author or co-author of several articles and chapters on the Joy of Dementia, including a chapter that appears in The Applied Improvisation Mindset published in August 2021. Additionally, Mary is a guest blogger for agebuzz and a playwright and theater director. She makes her living as a non-profit fundraising consultant. She can be contacted at