In March 2019, I organized a dialogue for artists. While it wasn’t the first dialogue I had ever convened, it felt significant because it was the first one I had hosted after having done any research on what a dialogue is and how to convene one. 😂

Don’t get me wrong. Other meetings I had organized in the past had been successful by some standard, mostly because I was so determined to have a conversation about something important, or bring a group of people together, that it didn’t seem to matter to me how I did it, just that I did.

Taking classes at SFU over the last couple years, in the Dialogue and Civic Engagement Certificate, has given me some deeper perspective around the idea of bringing people together for a conversation. While having the initial idea combined with undying optimism, is a good start, it is not nearly enough to deal with complex issues on the fly. I think back on some of the conversations I had convened in the past, and realize now, that I was in over my head. The only thing keeping things on track were the social norms that people brought into the room, and my gut, which was the only tool I had to navigate some truly ugly moments.

The courses I’ve taken, have constantly challenged me to think about more planning, and always digging deeper. Looking for underlying assumptions, and searching for more powerful questions. For my final project in the Dialogue and Civic Engagement Certifcate, I decided to convene a dialogue of my own titled “EPIC FAIL: Fear and Failure in the Creative Process.”

My chosen method for the dialogue was to host a World Café. You can learn more about it here. In preparation for my event, I took part in an online World Café; a monthly World Café session that anyone can join. I found it to be a solid learning opportunity, as well as a very cool experience, and I would highly encourage anyone give it a try. Through this online dialogue, I got to have in-depth conversations with people from around the globe (South Africa, Australia, Burkina Faso, The Netherlands), about topics that matter.

In the spring, after some deep thought, and several meetings with my project advisor, it was finally time to host the dialogue I had been planning for months. I booked a room at the Roundhouse Community Centre, and got pretty excited about office supplies. My event was specifically aimed at artists, and 19 attended. There were dancers, a textile artist, a painter, filmmakers, comedians, a graphic designer, actors, theatrical improvisors, and musicians.

My goals for the dialogue were to foster:

  • A deeper collective understanding of fear and failure
  • Empathy between artists
  • Stronger relationships between Vancouver artists

We began the Dialogue with introductions and a group activity that was fun and energizing, and also highlighted the theme of failure. The leading questions we explored throughout the three hour event:

  • Share a story about a time when you experienced failure (or fear of failure) in your artistic practise?
  • What does failure or fear of failure feel like?
  • What are you learning or noticing about failure?
  • What can support us in our failures? How do we know when to quit?
Beautiful graphic recording done by my D&CE classmate Susanna Houwen.

One wonderful surprise was that when the topic of the dialogue is fear and failure, it actually makes it easy to incorporate those ideas into hosting. I started the day by talking about how nervous I was coming to the space, and how I was afraid no one would show up. Many people nodded, some laughed, and my comments seemed to acknowledge the nerves in the room. One learning I took away from convening this dialogue is: once you acknowledge that fear is present, and failure is possible, it seems to take the power away from those ideas.

By the closing circle at the end of the day, several people expressed that they had had epiphanies throughout the day. People talked about the relationship between expectations and failure. We talked about when your failure affects others. Accepting that risks lead to failure, and there is learning to be done in both the failure itself and how we react to it. We talked about how capitalism sets the tone of competition, and if everything is a competition, there are winners and losers – succeeders and failers. We talked about the shame of failure. We talked about death, and the deep motivating fear of not having a story to tell, not having an impactful life.

A colleague of mine, following the dialogue, sent me this Ted Talk by Jia Jiang, talking about 100 Days of Rejection. His project is an absolutely whimsical reminder of what can happen when we put fear aside and ask for what we want. His talk suggests that what can support us in our failure is a curiosity about it – asking why, acknowledging doubts, being persistent.

Now that I’ve finished the Dialogue & Civic Engagement program, I’ve had more time to reflect on some of the concepts and tools I have taken from the courses. I’ve noticed small changes in the way I listen, the way I allow silence to play more of a role in conversations, and the way I ask questions. I also feel much better equipped to organize tough conversations, to allow people to engage honestly in what is important to them. But most of all, I’ve spent the summer trying to get more curious about my failures (past, present, and future).

The Thinking Steps

Rå Power at Rapid Fire Theatre’s Improvaganza 2018. Photograph by Tamara Taylor.

Have you ever noticed that most improvised scenes start with an improvisor moving three steps down stage centre?

The audience yells a suggestion, or an edit happens, and the improvisor moves, as themselves, downstage. Once they hit centre stage, they make a choice. This moment is almost imperceptible, so you have to really look for it. Three neutral steps down stage, while we think: “I’m starting a scene. The suggestion is fire. I’ll be a firefighter.”

I think this is why a lot of shows have blackouts or a countdown off the top of scenes, to give time for this moment.

I call this phenomena The Thinking Steps; the time it takes for us as improvisors to make a choice.

These three steps aren’t necessarily bad. They are an opportunity to think; our processing time, where we repeat the suggestion a few times to find inspiration, where our director brain is thinking about what the show needs at this moment. “How can I bring a different emotional energy to the show?”

I hear a lot of students talk about “getting out of your head” and “being in the moment” as the ultimate goal for improvisors. They’re learning this language in books, or from other teachers, or heck, movies about improv. For me, “getting out of your head” is a misnomer. Planning and thinking can help us on stage – looking for the big picture, assessing what the audience might be craving, remembering notes we’ve been given to improve our performance, keeping each other physically safe.

Being “in our head” isn’t bad. I think the goal should be less about not planning, and more about not judging.

Judgement is what stops us from editing, what makes us second guess our impulse, and what allows us to have three different ideas that we waffle on as we take three steps downstage.

When you get off stage, and you feel like you were “in your head”, what exactly were you thinking of? Were you noticing a team mate who hadn’t been in yet, and hoping to start something with them in the next beat? Were you thinking about making sure you find your light this week? Were you extra aware of how the audience was reacting negatively to certain content and clocking that you should try to change the tone your show? I would argue that this kind of thinking is not bad, in fact, it is what keeps us safe and working toward a goal as an ensemble.

And sure, in this art form, there are those magical shows where you get off stage and it feels like every choice was effortless, that your body was leading, and that impulse was queen. But if I am being honest, the majority of the time, I find myself half in my impulse and half in my head. My experience in a show often depends on not if I am in my head, but where my head is at.

Our own self judgement, or the perceived judgment of others, slows us down, causes us hesitate, makes us second guess, and chips away at our commitment. Examples of the kind of thinking that may not be serving you would be: beating yourself up about a choice you made, not listening to your scene partner because you are worrying about a part of the show upcoming, or rolling your eyes at an improvisor from the backline for a choice they stuck with. Once judgment is present on stage, it affects everyone. Performers and audience. It allows everyone to think, “you’re right, this isn’t that good”.

Lately, I’ve been challenging my students and myself to make a choice right away. As soon as there is the impulse to initiate a scene, try and get a choice going. Don’t take the time to travel downstage to decide, just decide. Making a strong choice right away gets us busy so that our judgement can’t creep in.

-An emotional sound (grunt, laugh, yelp)
-A change in the rhythm of your breath (sigh, pant, cough)
-A change to your body (wavy arms, toes that lead, gentle hands)
-A change to your face (furrowed brow, tiny mouth, tense cheeks)

You don’t need to know why you’re doing it, or how you are going to justify it. Just trust you can.

Rå Power at Rapid Fire Theatre’s Improvaganza 2018. Photograph by Tamara Taylor.

A couple cool benefits:

If there is any tentative energy in your steps downstage, the audience can sense it, and it makes them worried. (Hell, it encourages THEIR judgment) By moving in a specific way, you lessen their sense of fear by not sharing your own.

Making a snap choice right away will make your entrance feel more complete – it will be full of that choice, rather than just being filled with your “neutral” self.

By the time you arrive downstage, you will have a clearer take on who you are, what you feel.

If you make a sound or breath choice, you will also have the added benefit of breathing, which puts you better in touch with your impulse and emotion.

If you make a physical choice, it’s likely the breath or sound will follow, so you’re golden there too.

Plus a fun side effect might be that you start a scene somewhere else on stage where scenes don’t usually happen. If you make the choice from the wing, maybe the scene will travel all over the stage, or take place “way too close” to the curtain. Making a choice right away can take us somewhere unexpected.

I’d like to give full props to Mick Napier, who got me thinking about making emotional sounds to start scenes, Susan Messing, who encouraged me to change my face, and Mike Kennard, who got me thinking about the connection between breath and impulse.

2 Fast 2 Curious

Improvising as a duo can be exposing, terrifying, and one of the most liberating experiences you will have as an improvisor. You have your partner, yourself, and that’s it.

Rapid Fire Theatre’s Rå Power. Photograph by the amazing Aaron Pedersen. http://www.aaronpedersen.co/

The year was 2006. Capri pants were in. Katie Holmes inexplicably married Tom Cruise. And I formed my first improv duo with a fellow Rapid Fire Theatre improvisor Marc Schulte. We were called Bacon n’ Eggs. Why were we called that? As with most improv troupe names, no one really knows or cares!

Me and Marc Schulte in 2007 at Rapid Fire Theatre. Photograph by Tiffany Panas.

Before my first duo sets, I’d feel sickly nervous before we’d hit the stage. I was petrified of blanking, stressed about embarrassing myself, and not knowing how we were possibly going to pull off a 30 minute set. Normally, when I played Theatresports™ , we’d play short form scenes on teams of four. I was most comfortable being the third or fourth person to enter a scene, and I had no idea how to be on stage longer than three minutes. I was good at supporting other peoples’ ideas, but not super comfortable with investing in my own.

And then Marc and I would start our show. It felt like a free fall. For the first time, I felt out of control. Marc constantly surprised me with his choices, and with the extra space on stage, I even started to surprise myself. Marc constantly had my back, and I had his. There was a true sense of discovery. I didn’t have time to judge my own ideas, or hesitate in the wings, and so, I just had to trust in my ideas.

That’s the real joy of playing in a duo. You push yourselves to places you never thought possible, because you are forced to trust each other wholeheartedly. What you create is the synthesis of your two creatives selves, and the only limit is your curiosity.

So how can you find the right person to form a duo with? First, I’d say, think of all your duo partner options, and think BIG (just because someone is more experienced than you doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not interested in pairing up with you). Who is that person that you admire, and find unpredictable? Maybe it scares you a bit to perform with them? Maybe you’ve done scenes you’ve absolutely loved with them before? There’s a good chance this duo dynamic is worth investigating.

My latest duo is with long time pal Joleen Ballendine of Rapid Fire Theatre. We’ve been performing together in ensembles for years, but never just the two of us. When we decided to form a duo, we talked about how the troupe could serve us. Your duo can create the space you need to work on a particular challenge, or to try out a new form or style. Your duo should inspire you! After all, it’s 50% YOU!


Rapid Fire Theatre’s Rå Power. Photograph by the amazing Aaron Pedersen. http://www.aaronpedersen.co/

Joleen and I talked about how we both have been performing for most of improv lives with a lot of great duo partners, who happened to be men. We both identified a tendency for our role in these duos to be driving narrative, and grounding scenes. We decided that the most exciting direction for our troupe would be for us to push in the complete opposite direction. We wanted to do a non-narrative show, where we focus on following impulse, however weird, and we just generally, go a bit nuts.

And so, 10 years after my first duo, Rå Power was born. Our show encompasses all the things we love in improv: sometimes we sing, often we dance, we push each other to share truths. There is no structure, which terrifies us both. It’s a place where we get to do the things we don’t often do. And every one of our shows so far has been dark and meta and something I am proud of.

Want to dip your toe into a duo? Instant Theatre often runs classes specifically around forming a duo and finding your unique dynamic. Plus, Instant’s monthly show Double Down explores spontaneous pairings of improvisors randomly selected to perform their first duo set. Come see for yourself!

Facing Your Fears

What is the worst that could happen on stage?

There is no limit to how many awful on-stage moments we can dream up when we are standing backstage. Fear and judgement are the evil siblings to joy and trust, and we all have moments before, during or after a show where the whispers of our nagging fears take hold.

“I’ll embarrass myself.”
“People will think I’m dumb.”
“I won’t have anything to say.”
“If I follow my impulse, I will say something offensive.”
“I’ll trip and fall.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about fear, and how we can better use what scares us rather than try and stifle it. As Jan Henderson, a clown teacher at the University of Alberta says, “What you resist will persist.”


Graham Meyers & Kirsten Rasmussen at VIIF 2013. Photography by Liam Robert.

A few years ago, when I had to opportunity to direct the ensemble at the Vancouver Improv Festival, I took a gamble on a format. I had the whole ensemble write down their on-stage fears. We didn’t workshop it. Half the ensemble would do this mystery format, the other half would do one we spent a whole day working on.

We had huge sheets of paper, with the fears written on them. I reworded all the fears to be active challenges, that could be played.

“I am controlling.”
“I am too loud.”
“I am blank.”
“I ask only questions.”
“I am furniture.”


In this photo, Ben is playing “I am furniture.” Kareem Badr & Ben Gorodetsky at VIIF 2013. Photography by Liam Robert.

I wrote out about 20 different fears; all of them very different. Performers would step forward, read the fear off their paper, and hold it up so that the audience could read it too. Each person knew their own challenge, but not their scene partner’s. The chances of getting your own fear were low, but not impossible. Then two performers would do a scene together, playing out their challenge. The combinations of fears (“I am too angry” with “I’m annoying”, or “I can’t stop laughing” with “I am robotic”) lead to really bizarre and delightful scenework.

I think this show was successful because:
-It could have utterly failed. The show in itself was scary, and committing to it was a risk.
-The audience was let in; they saw both challenges, and watched the players discover each other’s  in the moment
-The improvisors committed 100%; the scenes did not look like the improv scenes we often watch. Each scene had a completely unique dynamic.

Once a fear is no longer something you are working against, or resisting, it becomes fun to play. Tripping a lot, or mumbling a lot, are great choices, as long as they are choices. The audience knows when we are nervous, or trying to hide something, but if we embrace it and do it more, we can harness our fears for good. And, once we stop resisting something, that feeling will pass, and we can move on to something new.

The gang at the Hideout Theatre in Austin, Texas, recently performed this format, directed by the lovely Roy Janik, at their 47-hour improv marathon. It reminded me how much I loved this experience!  You can read all the great fears that the Austin improvisors wrote down here.

Photographs of the 2013 Vancouver International Improv Festival by Liam Robert Photography.