Stephanie originally posted this open letter to Parents of Improvisers on her Facebook page and was open to having it shared to a broader audience.
My name is Stephanie and I am one of your kids’ teachers. I am 44 years old, I am a teacher, a musician, a director and I also happen to be a psychologist with kids in my own life that I adore. I have also logged over 15 years in this crazy business we call Improv…so I’ve witnessed a few things.
First off, Major CONGRATS!
Congratulation on raising such a Giving, Fearless, Creative and Confident young adult!!!
To commit to being an improviser means committing to a lifestyle of constant collaboration, team building, leadership skills, and just some of the best “Plays Well With Others & Has Great Team Spirit” type-of-people you’d ever want to be surrounded by.
Your child excels at this! Thrives on it! I was personally not one of these types as a young adult. I had to get much older before I had the confidence to work so closely and confidently with other people all the time. I was a wall flower. Your children are not. They stick out their necks for others on a daily basis. They are negotiating tricky personal and political dynamics all the time and because it’s a required skill to master in our field, they have levels of inter-personal sophistications that (in my 44 year old opinion) out-smarts a vast majority of older adults.
And your child has a thickness of skin that rivals most. They face outright rejection on a regular basis and very often with no tangible explanation. You talk about learning to pull-yourself-together and move forward? Your child is so passionate about their work on stage that they willingly put themselves in extremely vulnerable situations where they get turned down and rejected. And they get through it. They learn to take-their-punches and yet come away still desiring more team work and more creative opportunities.
And by the way, your child fits no cookie-cutter! Sorry, but you really managed to raise someone who thrives on sharing themselves with others and are genuine stand-outs in any crowd. And as a result of this, for a large # of them, most conventional jobs drain them dry of their spiritual nectar. Being a nameless cog-in-the-wheel is their waking nightmare. But they’ll do it if they have to. And it generally makes them even more determined to pursue improv and comedic theater even harder.
Most people enjoy a little creative expression here and there. Most people have a private domain of creativity, be it a book of personal poems, a great garden, or the solace of tooling around in the shed. This is a normal way we express our humanity.
What your children have and what is driving them, is kin to being a professional athlete. They eat, sleep and dream being comedically creative. And all the schools, the workshops, the training they are constantly paying for, that is their Gym, their trainers, their support group. They are working muscles that can only be analogous to professional athletes or jazz musicians working their craft for a lifetime of mastery > these folks are not seeking the end result, the “quarterly numbers” or “meeting quotas” or just punching in work hours. Your children thrive on the very core of being a life-long-learner. They squeeze joy and living-in-the-moment out of every minute of every day. They put in so many more hours of work in their week than most of their “friends back home”. And when they have to de-compress, they generally go-down hard. Imagine being an athlete always pushed to the limit…the down-time can seem extreme – be it extensive hours in bed or turning into a video game zombie for a long stint – just so that they can turn their brains off.
Yes, these are not what normal adults do. And no, this is not what lazy people do either. Arguably whats more lazy than using up all of your non-work hours staring at television for an average of 80 hours a week like most Americans? What may look like lazy is actually the result of “cup-filling-overth” for a generation of adults raised on multi-tasking and intrusive technology. They want to do it all and they just can’t.
They are creative warriors exploring the human condition – doing so in a theatrical setting and thus, they have a love for other people that pushed them to dare to feel discomfort in themselves in order to reach their audience and share an experience. They study the Masters who inspire an audience to feel and to dare and to laugh and to cry – and they seek to do the same.
Improvisers are the renaissance artists of this century and they are making a mark on what it means to live in our times at this very moment.
But a las, let me also give all of you parents my sincere Condolences.
My condolences that your job of worrying and wanting to protect your child isn’t going to be over any time soon. Nope, not for quite a while. To watch your child expose themselves to potential “failure” is gut wrenching – the hopes for success are of course there, but the reality of disappointment is equally present. Basically you have to learn to love roller coasters because that’s what watching your child grow, learn and explore this art is always going to feel like, emotionally. Highs and Lows. Ups and Down.
I pray that for their sake, you were the kind of parent who would take a deep breath, throw a Tums in your mouth and said “Okay then!” whenever your 8 yr old asked for that 3rd trip on that roller coaster > because that is the same core stance they are putting you in whenever they bring you into their improv lives. Yes, I can see it in your faces when you come to their shows and then when you leave. For them it’s a vital definition of who they are as people. For you it’s watching the uncertainty all over again when you’d much rather just see how nice their office is at work and hear about good praise from their boss and never have to think about it again.
I do have one piece of good news. Whenever you are in the audience watching a show your child is in, I 100% promise you they are performing in that show at 1/3 their actual talent and capacity. This doesn’t mean, don’t go. It means I’m telling you, they are much better. When you see a great show, they’re actually even greater than that. If you see an awful show, they are never as awful as they were there infront of you. It’s that old heisenberg effect, so there’s nothing you can do about it but relax, take some steady breathes and have that tums available if you need it.
So you’ve managed to bring into this world an extremely unique, caring, sharing, and fearless person. And they’ve managed to find a theatrical venue that fuels their creativity and gives life to their core being.
Here are the essential things I want every parent to know:
Don’t try to compete in the arena of comedy with your kid, just like you wouldn’t challenge an olympic swimmer to a few laps in the pool. Even if it was you who first taught them to swim it’s time now to trust in their coaches and training staff to guide them ahead. Putting your energies into being their strongest support system (and finding other means to explore your own creative urges) will free your kid up from feeling competition (or worse, minimized) by you. There’s plenty of competition in their lives already.
Remove “failure” from your vocabulary. Embrace every flaw and trouble they are having as evidence they are growing and learning. Us improvisers share this bizarre belief system that all things that happen are gifts to be celebrated, including what would seemingly paralyze most people with fear. If this is too much for you personally, be glad it’s not you up there on stage and sit in awe and wonder at the courage your child has in his/her life.
SNL will not be hiring your child and that’s completely and utterly okay. If your child went into some non-for-profit community service, would you immediately be asking them “when are you running for Mayor”? If your child signed up for the army would you require a purple heart as the only valid sign that they did good work? In any other career, most parents would not be expecting the highest-level-of-accompliment to be the one requirement asked of their kids daily to see “if they’re any good at what they do”. So keep that in mind whenever you joke around about SNL > because secretly it makes them feel bad for letting you down.
Don’t be Chicken Little! Particularly when your young adult first starts out, a lack of experience and perspective makes it difficult for them to fully digest the meaning of what is happening around them. It will feel like The Sky Is Falling and everything is a sign towards disaster > then 2 weeks later suddenly it’s all gravy again. (Remember that roller-coaster analogy from earlier?) The drama of the disaster is also part of the passion your child exudes, so do everything not to get swept up into, particularly if you find yourself jumping on an opportunity to steer your child completely away from this all together. It’s not going to work. And worse, it may cause your child to shut down from sharing more with you in the future.
Be ready that it might all end. I know improvisers who had tremendous success, lots of admiration from their peers, lots of successful shows and who are now married, raising a child or two, and living a much more conventional life. I know improvisers who were at the top of their game and in high demand and went on to get a realtors’ license and raise a family somewhere warm (*not* Chicago). I know improvisers who returned to grad school and are now doctors. AND I know improvisers who went to grad school, had a second career and are now on their 3rd career back teaching improv. For many young adult improvisers, what they don’t know they’re doing is really preparing themselves to excel so well in the next stage of their lives – whatever that may be. Don’t force this to happen unnaturally. Understand that, as I’ve seen now for over 15 years, studying improv and putting their creativity through such rigorous training, often becomes important stepping stones to the next chapter in their lives.
And finally, nothing about the economy and the job market TODAY resembles anything close to what we grew up with when we were their ages. It really is a whole different world and your childrens’ generation are the daring guinea pigs trying to navigate the most unknown, unpredictable waters this country has seen. Our way of dealing with things doesn’t often apply in today’s world. Our assumptions about how “the business” works are no longer applicable. We have to believe what our young adults are saying to us about “what it’s like out there”. So sit back, take a deep breath, and open ears just to listen to them. Love them. Worry for them. And celebrate every chance your child gives you to share this ride they are on that they call IMPROV.
Stephanie McCullough Vlcek, Psy.D. is a full-time faculty member at The Second City Training Center and Head Music Director of ComedySportz Chicago. She began her piano improv career in 1999 with iO and ComedySportz, and over the past decade she’s toured the country with Second City, written twelve musicals, performed with Wayne Brady, completed her doctorate degree in Clinical Psychology, written hundreds of songs and played with some three dozen improv troupes. Hooking up with Mansical! ranks in her top 3 favorite improv shows she’s been a part in!