Improv Lessons for Activism

Good morning, America. How's the fresh hell treating you today? Yesterday on facebook, a friend of mine named Hana asked (generally, but partially directed at me):

I see lots of excellent efforts around donations, contacting elected officials, signing petitions, sending postcards, mass actions. But if we assume, for a second, that we're going to have to figure out how to collectively take over some important formerly-governmental functions (e.g. water quality testing? labor rights enforcement?) and work on the ground against some horrific government actions (e.g. mass deportations? registries?), then we are going to need to shore up and build reliable relationships with individuals and with and among civil society organizations. All of this atomistic collective action is important, but let's get relational too. So, tell me what you do in your daily life, what you see others doing, what you aspire to do, to build the kinds of relationships we can draw on to make sure we can be a buffer against the onslaught.

Great question.



I moved from the South Bronx, New York, to Hartford, Connecticut in September 2008. I drove away from my anarchist book club, my radical dogwalking collective, my handmade bike, my CSAs and warehouse art galleries to move to the land of insurance salespeople and steady habits. My New York friends went on to be deeply involved in Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter, and I went on to be the director of a museum department, occasionally host things on public radio, and open a successful comedy theater with many others.

I had (and still have) massive guilt about moving away from the more radical world I used to live in, but I am very proud of what I have done here in Connecticut. Did you notice the dates? I moved to Hartford within a couple of days of the stock market collapse in 2008. I had only been here a few weeks when Obama was elected. I spent his presidency working as a waitress, teacher, comedian, marketer, and events planner; I spent his presidency making friends and building thousands of relationships. I am now the Managing Director of the Sea Tea Comedy Theater.

I am happy and proud to say that my comedy company, Sea Tea Improv, seems to be considered a leader in collaboration and community relationships. So much so, that as President Trump's first week in office rounds the bend, my inboxes and my texts have all exploded with people asking how we can work together, or what we can do. Sea Tea Improv finds itself a leader, in our own very small way in our own underdog city. I'm happy to pull out some of the lessons that we've spent the last 8 years learning. 

The audience for this post is anyone who is either just starting out as an activist, or who, like me, finds themselves wondering "how can I level up?" It is aimed at the many people right now who are screaming into the void, "I NEED TO DO MORE BUT I DON'T KNOW HOW!" Some people have already given their entire lives to these causes and you, friends, can go get a coffee instead of reading this. You earned it. 

(Side note: I am an intersectional feminist with lots to learn-- please call me out if I misstep! I am very privileged in many ways-- white, stable income, relatively healthy, etc-- and there are of course things here that will not apply to everyone. This is coming from my experiences in comedy and leadership, and while it is very bossy (which I am), it is still very personal.)


I'm about to rain down on you with advice I've gathered from performing improv, teaching improv, and running a comedy company. Not all advice applies to everyone. Everyone has their own life and experiences, so if something doesn't apply to you, please dismiss and move on. Also, if you need mental help, please seek the treatment you need. But... I think there's something in here for everyone!

Improv Lessons for Activism

1. You can do so much more than you think you can.

I've been told that my teaching style is giving difficult feedback with a huge smile on my face, so let's do it. This part is a little woo-woo but we'll get through it.

Most people walk into our improv classes telling us all the things they can't do. Can't speak in front of groups, can't do crowds, can't be funny, can't make friends as an adult, can't this, can't that. I listen to this patiently, say something like "I understand" and then immediately put those people in a situation where they prove themselves completely wrong. Most people constantly tell themselves a story of all of their own limitations. Of course, many of them are real. Anxiety is real. Depression is real. Privilege (and lack thereof) is real. But with just a little pushing you can do MORE than you think you can. Just a little bit more. If you can't push yourself, put yourself in a situation where someone else pushes you. Peer pressure can be positive. I have seen people in my classes be absolutely transformed by showing up to improv classes week after week for months or years. Some of those transformations came from people with severe mental health conditions like schizophrenia or paralyzing anxiety. If they can push out of their comfort zones, so can you. 

This applies offstage, also: Sea Tea Improv opened a theater by committing to doing it. If we had known certain details like, for example, how much it would cost (ha, ha... cry), it would have been very easy to tell ourselves not to do it. But that was the next step for us, so we committed to it and did everything in our power to make it work. In the past, that "just a little more" was a monthly show, or teaching classes, or expanding our ensemble. We were always pushing ourselves to do more than it felt like we can. 

And this principle applies to how you spend your time and your life. Yes, you have the time. Yes, you have the energy. Yes, you have the money. It is hidden somewhere else. Your mission is to cut out the time, energy, or money from something else and transfer it over to your activism. It's not simple and it's not easy but it is POSSIBLE. And remember, it's just a little more than you were doing before.

But here's the bad news: SINCE I KNOW YOU CAN DO MORE THAN WHAT YOU ARE CURRENTLY DOING, I EXPECT YOU TO TRY.  Yes, friends, you have to step up. You have to be brave. And being brave means ignoring all the stories you are telling yourself about why you can't step up. We don't have time for your self-loathing right now! We love you and we need you in the fight. (See? Tough with a smile.)

2. But how do you do stuff? By just doing it. Don't wait until things are perfect.

Waiting until circumstances are ideal is a losing game. That time will not come. Try anything, expect to fail, and then try the next thing. All that time you spent waiting for the right thing is time you wasted not learning lessons. Meanwhile, other people were out there making all the moves. Either, they were your enemies and now you're in deeper shit than before, or they were potential friends you missed out on. Get out there and do one thing-- go to one meeting, sign up for one class, join one secret facebook group, and see what it's all about. If you don't like it, stop doing it. If you do like it, repeat it. This sounds very dumb as I write it but it is much harder than it seems. Inertia-- in either form; staying at rest or staying in motion with something you hate-- is bad. Making choices is good. Make a choice and see what happens. My favorite way of making a choice is to sign up for something in the future-- a march, a marathon, a class, a meeting-- and then I have to go. Following people who already know what they are doing is a really good choice to make.

3. The most important thing in any scene is a relationship. (Or: Make Your Partner Look Good.) Reach out!

This is what Hana's question was about. How do we build strong relationships? My best advice is: don't overthink it. If someone does something you like or admire, email them, or tell them to their face. This happens to me once in a while and people always think they are being super weird. They are not. They are being great. "Hey, I really like that think you said/did/asked," etc is an excellent first step. It's a lot better than "I like your shirt" or "did you see this movie," as far as networking goes.  Be the one to build the connection.

In improv we have a concept called "Make Your Partner Look Good." It's the idea that in any space you are in, it's your job to honor the other person's experiences and listen to what they are saying. If there is any way to make them look good, do it! Online, link and share things they write that are awesome (signal boost!). In person, compliment them sincerely. Introduce people to people very nicely. I go on and on about this at length in an old post. If you don't have a relationship, you have nothing to build on and your onstage scene, or offstage business, will quickly crumble.

4. It's not about you. It's never, ever about you. 

Strong scenes and strong communities are built when people are willing to put their egos aside. Talk openly and honestly about the larger picture. Try not to take things personally, because what we're doing now is not a personal thing. We are putting aside our individual comfort for the collective good. We all think we're the hero of our own story, but we're really just a little tiny piece of history. This is a good thing because it diminishes the pressure to be perfect. Embrace the fact that you are not the star of the world. It's better for everyone including you.

Not everyone needs to be a leader. It's impactful to join a movement or an organization that is gaining momentum. Put your own "I need to be a leader" ego aside and find out who's already doing good stuff, and support those efforts. If, for example, you want people of color to have a bigger voice, the best thing you can do is shut up for a minute and give them space (literal, or virtual) to lead.

5. Accept the reality you are living in (otherwise known as "Yes, And").

Nothing can move forward if we can't agree on where we presently are. Surprise! This is the most classic improv lesson of all: say Yes, And. That doesn't mean be positive: it means, if someone says "I hate all immigrants," instead of saying NO YOU DON'T, HOW COULD YOU, you need to be saying things like, "yes, I see you hate immigrants, AND here's some information for you." Acknowledging other people's positions, and the reality of the world we live in, is the only way we can build something new together. We have to start from where we are. We can't start back at the New Deal, or 2008, or November 7th. Yes, we are witnessing a horror show. And, the next steps are (fill in the blank).

6. Go to (good) people's stuff. 

But how do you meet people? Go to the LEISURE events and gatherings you wish you were cool enough to go to. (Because-- once you go to them, ta-da! You are a person who goes to that.) Go to gallery openings, improv shows, music, gay bars, community meetings, libraries, coffee places, bookstores. People who are rich and materialistic are very, very good at this. They show up to fancy bars and restaurants like they belong there. You can do the same thing, with more meaningful places and events. This is where you will meet your people.

7. Your rest & your self-care should start to build the life you want.

"Self-care" is a popular phrase these days and I'm all for it. I love sleeping, and nights off. But I don't think that we all mean the same thing when we say it. Some nights, I will go out and have a bunch of beers and wake up feeling terrible the next day. That is NOT self-care. Binge-eating a bag of Hot Fries as I did last night was not self-care, it was Doing Whatever I Want. 

Your self-care can double as a way to build the community that you are looking for. The best self-care I have done is spending time with friends who want to talk about meaningful things. Or going to book clubs. Or reading alone-- but when I read, I'm reading Octavia Butler. Or seeing a movie that is intellectually stimulating or at least made by a woman or person of color. Most of my good self-care is consumption of art, or building relationships, or taking care of my body with the side effect that I'm even more ready to work the next day. Obviously I'm imperfect (see: hot fries), but see if you can expand your definition of self-care to supporting your community. When Sea Tea Improv takes nights off, I inevitably end up chatting up some random person in another industry who eventually ends up hiring us. My favorite solo self-care is (this is dorky) cleaning my house. It's physical, it's brainless, and at the end of it I have a clean house.

7. Go outside. Wander. Linger. 

THIS IS THE BEST PIECE OF ADVICE I CAN OFFER! Go outside and walk around. I know it sounds incredibly stupid, but this is The Way. This is the thing someone will write a book about and make a million dollars on. 

When my friends come to visit me in Hartford they are inevitably amused by all the people I wave at. Greg (my husband and business partner) and I spend an immense amount of time wandering around Hartford, and after eight years, it means we know a lot of people. A lot. And all different kinds of people. We know the names of the building supers and the CEOs on our block. In the course of ten minutes at my "office" (a coffee place at the center of town), I have chatted with the mayor, local journalists, and teens that I know from my summer program. None of this would happen if I didn't wander around. Wander around, be outside, be curious, don't rush. Just be... around. Take your meetings out of your office and into somewhere local. Make other people walk around with you. Park your car a few blocks further away (or don't take your car). You WILL meet people. You will get to know your community better. You can't help it. This is the best thing you can do. After meetings, walk around the office or department saying hi to everyone you know. I always do this. (And this should go without saying, but don't be gross. You're not too good for anyone. You're not social climbing. Don't only interact with people who you perceive as peers or "above" you. Just be curious about the people you meet.)

8. Failure will happen.

I have nothing to say about this except that you should chant this to yourself as often as you need to to feel comfortable with it. 

9. Everything is ephemeral.

The worst improv shows are the best improv shows. This sentence has a double meaning, and both are powerful and true. The two most extreme outcomes contain the same lesson. After a terrible show, you think: well, thank god, that's over and it will never happen again. After a great show, you think: that was so fantastic and I'll never get to do it again. It's such a sad, nostalgic feeling-- but then you're on to the next. It's ok. It's good. No matter what happens, good or bad, you have to keep moving forward.

9. Work in teams.

I understand why people feel such an immense amount of pressure and fear around activism and art: it feels lonely. It feels like you are taking on a huge responsibility all by yourself. So don't. In improv, we never do anything alone. Never. Onstage or off. When we teach a class, we send two teachers. If we can manage it, we bring along two people to meetings. 

The benefits to doing things in a team are myriad. You can take a minute to think, or rest, while your teammate covers for you. Your teammates should be out to make you look good (see #3), which is a relaxing way to enter any situation. And, if you get sick or have an emergency come up, your teammate can still show up and represent you. This applies way beyond improv shows. It applies to activism and all the stuff you are showing up for. Your teammate can be your friend, your partner, your coworker, whoever. It can be anyone. Teammates also make talking to new people much much less awkward. 

"Teams" also gets me to my favorite subject, which is: collaborate on any and everything you can. Sea Tea has a goal of collaborating with at least 217 different organizations this year. Look for cross-org collaborations wherever you can.

10. Educate yourself.

The more diverse our improv community gets, the more I hear things like, "I'm old, I don't know who Ariana Grande is," or "I'm not as into superheroes and comics as other people are," or "I don't know anything about Gloria Steinem." While I understand that everyone has endless things they will never learn, I also believe you should not brag about all the things you don't know. Ask questions and then go home and read a book, or at least binge Wikipedia entries. If you want to understand other people and change the world you are responsible for being in a CONSTANT learning mode. Constant. No piece of culture or history is something you are above at least learning about. Even MMA. (Come at me, Meryl!) Culture and history is how you will be connecting with others in the future.

11. Build habits and then trust yourself. And be patient.

So you're going to learn all this stuff, build a billion habits, be so intentional... and then you are going to have to improvise. You'll just have to. It's a fact. Nothing will go as you plan. That's what we're all learning after the election.

The point of building habits and relationships and skills is so that you can use them without thinking when you need to. For these things to become automatic. 

It took me eight years to build the kind of relationships that I'm now trading on every day-- emails are flying, calendars are filling, actions are happening. But none of it feels too hard, oddly. It feels much easier because these are people and organizations I trust and know a lot about already. I am also starting to engage with new friends and people who I can tell don't totally trust me yet, and that is completely fair. It will take a lot of time. Know that whatever you start today may not pay off for years. 

12. Everyone is different and that is good.

No strong improv team is full of people that are all the same. Teams have introverts, extroverts, support players, editors, stars. They have robots and emotional exploders. They have people who are really naturally funny and people who (surprise!) aren't that funny but are amazing at support. We need all of those people on an improv team and we need all of them in a team of activists.

Great leaders recognize that everyone can do better, but that "better" isn't the same for everyone. See that in the community around you and try to support and encourage people to find their own path. But still-- work together. Collaboration is what is going to bring activism to victory. 


If you want America to fundamentally change, you may have to fundamentally change. We all expect other people to make these big changes, but why shouldn't it be you? I'm sure most of these will be met with, "....but I can't!" All I'm asking of you is to listen and think about it.

1. Live in a city where you can have an impact.

It is so very strange to say this, but the best thing I ever did was move to Hartford. I love New York, I miss New York, but my peers were doing so much better having impact there. My life in Hartford is in many ways much more annoying, but it is also much more meaningful. If everyone who wanted to be a leader moved to a city that needed that energy, we might have a stronger nation. You might not get to have the country you want if everybody lives in, or is aiming for, New York, LA, or San Francisco. Make your own community stronger. (Might that mean less money or fame? Yes. Yes it might. Are those the most important things to you?)

2. Learn about things you thought were boring when you were a kid, like money and the law.

Lawyers and money are making most of these decisions that we hate. Law and money are not evil. They are tools. Understand the law and support the work of great lawyers and judges. Money: get your own finances under control. There's nothing harder than pursuing a passion when you're exhausted from overwork or debt. (I know this is a whole journey in itself-- Mr. Money Mustache is a great place to start thinking about living below your means.) Sea Tea Improv had to force itself to learn about these things from necessity and now we're better off.

3. Date/marry/be friends with people who care.

I could not do what I do without a partner as ambitious and community-oriented as me. My friends from across my life are also very passionate people. We might not be passionate about the same things all the time, but they are willing to dig in and do the work. Surrounding yourself with people who will say, "hey, let's go _____" is going to inherently make you more active and a better activist. Do not waste your life with people whose primary mission is to acquire more stuff. The improv community in Connecticut is so passionate and caring that it drives everyone to be better. Surround yourself with people who are compassionate, empathetic, and ambitious.

4. Change careers to something more impactful.

There are so many places that need you. This is, of course, changing your whole entire life and is very difficult to do, but if you are considering it, let me be the first to encourage you. You are not stuck in the corporate job you thought you had to have until your 65th birthday. Make a plan, save your dollars and go do something else. 

5. Being a parent is a very important job but it's not the only job.

I love kids so much, and all the moms and dads in my life. I see how hard you work and how tired you are and I have the utmost respect for that. But: we can't wait 18 years for your kids to grow up. We need you in the fight now. Please make room, even a little tiny sliver of room, for connecting with the people and causes who need help right now. We need every compassionate and hardworking person down in the dirt, and a ton of those people are parents. You are great. Come fight.

6. Introverts, we need you.

If you don't love being around people, I'm sure this all feels very overwhelming. Secret: it feels overwhelming to extroverts, too. I have heard a lot of "I would do _____, but I'm an introvert" lately.

Making a better world is going to be hard. So hard. Some of the best leaders I know are introverts who have taken themselves way outside their comfort zones. Introverts, you are smart and thoughtful and we need you out in the world talking and listening to people. Find your own way, but please join the fight. I'm not saying change your personality. But I am saying, there is a place for you in activism.

6. Show up.

This is, after all, the only lesson, the lesson for everyone. Be there for the people and communities that need you. Amazing things happen when you just show up. There are a thousand reasons not to show up for anything, and one good reason: because someone else needs you to show up. Ignore the thousand and choose the one.

Step out onto the stage. It's ok. Your team is out here, in the light. You can do more than you think you can. Now do it.

-- Julia