Wednesday, May 23, 2018

From Dream to Dirty Vanilla Box

By Pam Victor

When the clouds parted 15 years ago and the Great Goddess of Improv locked me in her fierce tractor beam with songs of laughter and connection, I didn't know that I was just one of hundreds - maybe thousands - to have the epiphany that improv was my calling. I didn't know because almost none of them lived anywhere near me in Western Mass. There is so much I didn't know back then. I am so grateful for all I didn't know. As I sat there for the first time in a dusty barn-like room with about 15 other slightly terrified people from all walks of life listening to our teacher explain the tenets of improv, the one and only thing I knew was that I was deeply and madly in love. With improv.

And all I wanted was more improv, more improv, more improv. A match was lit and it spread like wildfire in my soul. If you looked into my eyes, you would see little funny flames burning. If you cupped your hand like you would with a seashell, and listened to my chest, you would hear my heart beating "more improv, more improv, more improv." As luck would have it, there was only just one improv show in my little neck of the woods in Western Massachusetts, a terrific troupe called the Villa Jidiots who performed short form improv occasionally throughout the county and in the backroom of a Chinese restaurant once a month. Though, again luckily, they didn't seem to be interested in casting me in their show. Yes, it was luck. Though I thought the lack of improv scene was my albatross, it ended up being my awesomesauce. Just like improv promises, there are no mistakes. There are only opportunities.

But 15 years ago, there were no opportunities in sight. So I made my one. Improv teaches us to accept the moment without judgment and to move forward in positivity one small step at a time. So I begged some friends from that first ragtag class and founded an improv troupe. Thankfully, we had no idea what we were doing - so many opportunities to learn! - and our first gig was at my local library in my tiny dot of a town in Western Mass. We did a lot of libraries back then. Lots of fundraisers. There is so much I didn't know back then. I am so grateful for all I didn't know. And still the Goddess held me in her tractor beam. More improv, more improv, more improv.

In 2012, I took another big leap of faith. I knit together a fragile web of childcare coverage - many thanks to my in-laws and my ever-supportive husband! - to allow me to spend five weeks in Chicago studying at the mecca of longform improv, iO Theater. I cried a lot in preparation for that trip because I felt like a fraud and a fake and a dilettante. Why was I abandoning my family to do this insane thing for no sensible reason? Here I was studying improv with people who were working for their shot on "Saturday Night Live," and I had few prospects in improv aside from my blind willingness to listen to the drumbeat of my passion. Turns out, that's enough. Improv guru Susan Messing says, "Being brave is being scared as shit but doing it anyway with the result of flying." I was scared as shit to go to Chicago. What's more, I didn't know why I was doing it, only to return to my little life raising my kids in Western Mass. But I tacked Susan Messing's words to my bulletin board, making it a vision board, and I spent five of the happiest weeks of my life in Chicago only to come back home to continue homeschooling and raising my kids with no prospects in improv. But still the drumbeat continued, More improv, more improv, more improv.

With no destination in sight, my thirst for improv knowledge lead, one silly step at a time, to an interview blog series where I asked my improv heroes every question I could think of about the art form. They thought I was a journalist, but really I was just cobbling together my own education from the confines of my life as a stay-at-home, homeschooling mom in woodsy Western Mass. There is so much I didn't know back then. I am so grateful for all I didn't know. Because that blog series lead me to implausibly ask the two most well-respected improvisers in the world to let me write their book. (Experienced, I lacked. But steely ovaries? I had a pair, I guess.) And the Improv Goddess must have shined down her light because they answered, "Yes, and..."

That's when the dream turned into an experiment. After 10 years of homeschooling our son, we dropped him of at college. I suddenly was out a job and the house was quieter except for that drumbeat. More improv, more improv, more improv. In August 2014, I started the "Can I Make a Living Doing What I Love?" Experiment, a yearlong effort to make $16,000 - the poverty line for a family of two - through improvisation. In Western Massachusetts. Where there were a grand total of five performing improvisers. Improv teaches us to jump and then figure it out on the way down. So I jumped.

Soon I was the one teaching a class of 15 slightly terrified people from all walks of life. I had no idea what I was doing. So I did what improv trained me to do, I disregarded the voices of unhelpful judgment and I figured it out one step at a time. There were obstacles that turned into opportunities along the way, and I fell back on the improv tenets: Move forward with positivity. Pay attention to the moment that was happening - as opposed to what I wished or feared was happening - and follow where it was taking me. One class of students turned into two, which turned into more improv and more improv and more improv.

In 2015, I officially founded Happier Valley Comedy, Inc, a nonprofit with a mission to bring more laughter, joy, and ease to Western Massachusetts (and the world.) Much to my surprise and, if we're being honest here, chagrin, I found myself running a company despite the fact that I didn't know how to run a company. There is so much I didn't know back then. I am so grateful for all I didn't know as I built the little improvised house as I lived in it. One metaphorical brick at a time, I built the wing of a improv training program. One metaphorical brick at a time, the wing of the shows. One metaphorical brick at a time, the wings of the professional and personal development programs. There is so much I didn't know back then. I am so grateful for all I didn't know. It allowed me to open myself to ask for help and guidance, which lead to forming a leadership team and community of the most supportive, enthusiastic humans on earth ... almost all of whom love a good poop joke.

Yesterday, on May 22, 2018, my business partner Scott Braidman and I signed a lease on a 1,300 square foot space on Route 9 in Hadley, Massachusetts. (The bricks aren't metaphors anymore!) Right now, it's what they call a dirty "vanilla box," an empty room devoid of anything but walls and toilets. But when we look at it, we see the first ever improv theater and training center in Western Massachusetts.

"I thought this was going to feel more celebratory," said Scott as we clinked our turmeric lattes together in Pulse Cafe, the vegan restaurant across the street, after signing the lease. We both looked at each other wide-eyed and scared as shit. There is so much we don't know about building a theater. We don't even know what we don't know. "We are going to learn so much," said Scott, which is improv-speak for "Holy crap. We are going to make so many mistakes." We are trying to be grateful for all we don't know.



Pam celebrating in the dirty vanilla box
(May 22, 2018)

Figure it out.




The only thing we can do now is to move forward, step by step, as if we were in an improv scene. First notice without judgment to how it feels and accept that reality. (It's scary! Yay! We have no idea what's going to happen! Yay!) Then we need to listen to what's really happening in the moment - rather than what we hope or fear is happening - and serve the needs of those moments one small step at a time.

The first thing we're going to need is a broom.


Pam Victor is the founder and Head of Happiness - which is what they call the President - of Happier Valley Comedy where she runs the Through Laughter program for professional and personal growth and a multi-level improv comedy school as well as producing regular improv shows in Western Massachusetts. Pam is the author of “Baj and the Word Launcher: A Space-Aged Asperger Adventure in Communication” and, along with legendary improvisers TJ Jagodowski and Dave Pasquesi, co-author of “Improvisation at the Speed of Life: The TJ & Dave Book.” Pam is a nice person. She likes you already.

On August 12, Pam will be facilitating "F*ck Your Fear & Trust Your Truth," a personal growth workshop for all who identify as women. This three-hour workshop takes place at the Happier Valley Comedy Theater at 1 Mill Valley Road in Hadley, Massachusetts, the first-ever improv theater in Western Massachusetts. For more about that workshop and more, check out.

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