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When a “career by the book” falls apart, Improvise

© 2009 Avocationist · January 22nd, 2009 · No Comments

Patricia Ryan Madson Patricia Ryan Madson was Head of Stanford University’s Undergraduate Acting Program and has taught a generation of students in all disciplines how they can bring the lessons of Improv Theatre into their lives. She has written a fantastic book that summarizes this philosophy: Improv Wisdom: Don't Prepare, Just Show Up.

In her 20s, when she missed out on tenure in her first University job – in spite of doing “all the right things” – she decided to focus instead on what she loved. Her explorations of Eastern Philosophy and spiritual practices informed her work in theatre and led to her success at Stanford, including being awarded the University’s highest teaching prize, the Lloyd W. Dinkelspiel Award for outstanding contribution to undergraduate education.

In this second of a two-part interview, Patricia talks about losing her first academic job, finding her path to an even better position and the life lessons that gave birth to her book Improv WISDOM.

“What I began doing at that point was trying to please ‘The Man’.”

Read on to find Patricia’s thoughts on:

1. What if you do everything by the book…and fail?

2. What would happen if I just acted like me?

3. Is the purpose of life just to be happy?

Read the full interview:

Avocationist: To get back to your career path, you were at St. Catherine’s School teaching and still taking classes: what happened next?

“Something in me said, ‘I think you might enjoy teaching at a higher level.’”

Patricia: I realized that I loved teaching and something in me said, “I think you might enjoy teaching at a higher level.” I was managing kids, but I know by nature that I am not a kid kind of person. I don’t have any children myself and I feel awkward with babies, toddlers, really any child under 15, but give me a high school or college-aged kid, and I am very good. Something said to me, “I think you want to keep teaching. You have found your niche here, but it could be great if you do it at the college level.”

“It was funny because I got to earn my way through graduate school by acting in their rep company.”

So, after 2 years at St. Catherine’s I went back to graduate school to get a degree, because if I wanted to teach at the college level, I needed a Master’s Degree. I went to Wayne State University where I was part of their Hillberry Classic Repertory Company. It was funny because I got to earn my way through graduate school by acting in their rep company.

Avocationist: Do you remember some of the roles you had?

“I was a classic comedian.”

Patricia: I was Helena in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, I was Calpernia in “Julius Caesar”, and I was Lysistrata in “Lysistrata”; they were classic Shakespearian roles. I was there three years and probably did about a dozen roles. I was a classic comedian. I was the loud, funny woman in the Shakespearian comedies. That was my prototype. I had a great time there.

“What I began doing at that point was trying to please ‘The Man’.”

After I completed my Master’s Degree it led right into a fabulous job as an assistant professor at Denison University in Granville, OH. That is where my book starts and that is where I tell the story of being a college teacher where I am just happy as a clam. I had rented a lovely little house in a kind of “Gidget Goes to College” town in Ohio. I was happy and completely ready to settle in for the duration. What I began doing at that point was trying to please “The Man”. I was trying to do everything that I could to get tenure including sitting on all of the right committees and trying to figure out the political angles in the University. Basically what would look good on my resume? I really became obsessed with getting tenure because that would then mean, in my thinking, that I could just settle in and keep teaching without ever having to make a change. I liked it and I wanted to make it permanent.

“It is not good for you to try to live your life by somebody else’s standards.”

But I wasn’t really following any kind of sense of my dream or my wonder or my talent; I was just trying to figure out how to please the university establishment. I would advise anyone not to do that because it might work, and if it does work, it is not a good idea. It is not good for you to try to live your life by somebody else’s standards. It is not that the things that I did weren’t worthwhile, but what happened, of course, is that I did do everything right. I even got a university teaching award so I was sure I was set for life. Then the letter stating, “I am sorry we are not going to give you tenure,” and I think the wording was, “Your work lacks intellectual distinctiveness.” I thought, “Whoa! Hold on!” And then I paused and thought, “Wait a minute. Actually they are right.” I had not been following the kind of training that actually meant something to me. I had been doing things politically, or trying to please everyone and had not once spent a summer doing something that I thought was marvelous.

“I thought at one point that my career was probably over in academic life.”

So I didn’t get tenure and I got booted out of Denison. I thought at one point that my career was probably over in academic life. I didn’t know what I was going to do. But if you interview people that have ever been fired that it is often a seminal moment in their life and it turns out to be was the greatest thing that could have happened. It was certainly true in my case and I am very grateful that Denison did not keep me on because I don’t know… I would have probably died an alcoholic in a small apartment in Ohio or something from having stayed there.

“They kicked me out and lo and behold I was out in the world looking for work.”

They kicked me out and lo and behold I was out in the world looking for work. I started looking for either a theater job or a faculty job. In no time at all I got a really, REALLY good job as an assistant professorship at Penn State; a bigger school with a more interesting department.

“Learn this lesson well. You can go back into academia but you are never going to just try to follow the rules.”

So I took the job and as I went I said to myself, “Learn this lesson well. You can go back into academia but you are never going to just try to follow the rules. You are going to do what you believe you need to do and want to do and what follows your heart. That way if you don’t get tenure this time, you can’t look back and be sorry. To thine own self be true. Be true to your own heart - whatever that is- and if you get to stay at Penn State great, and if not, oh well. You can still feel good about yourself even if you don’t manage to hang on there.

“It’s interesting because when you start stepping to your own drum, the world respects you more.”

It’s interesting because when you start stepping to your own drum, the world respects you more. Penn State would have kept me forever, I think. It turned out that I was in a very agreeable situation. I was about to get tenure at Penn State when Stanford invited me to come and head their undergraduate acting program. All of a sudden when I started doing the things that I really love to do, the rest of the world respected it. So I got what I wanted, which was the respect of the academy, but not by trying to please them. I got it by following my own talents and heart.

Avocationist: The one thing I wanted to ask you that is related to that; in your book you talked about how you took up Tai Chi and you spent your summers traveling. What did that do for you in terms of your work, or did it?

“I was like a kid in a candy shop in California.”

Patricia: The thing was, instead of writing academic papers about theater or something, I just started trying these things. When I got to California I was really drawn into Eastern Philosophy, Religion, and Tai Chi. I went to Asia to study traditional Japanese art and the world of Eastern thought and practices. These included spiritual disciplines as well as Tai Chi and Yoga. All of these things were so interesting to me. I was like a kid in a candy shop in California taking workshops on crystal healing, studying Chakra this and Hindu that. I had so much fun looking at the world around me for experiences that could enrich my life. I have always been a philosophical thinker so I was thrilled when I got to California and there were more than just 5 Christian religions and a Jewish religion around. There was Taoism and 10 kinds of Buddhism and Hinduism and I became a Sufi for a while. I had a fabulous first 10 years in California trying things out and following my wonder.

Avocationist: How did that affect your acting and your teaching?

“Often the best way to enhance the knowledge of your own subject is to look at it from another vantage point.”

Patricia: It opened it up in a lot of ways. Often the best way to enhance the knowledge of your own subject is to look at it from another vantage point. So I began to see theater and acting from a much broader prospective and a more enhanced human dimension. Growing up in the rural south in Virginia, I didn’t know anything about things that were Asian and certainly didn’t know anything about Japan or Japanese people. I delved into a system called, “Constructive Living,” which is an American psychologist named David Reynolds’s take on two Japanese psychotherapies. I found his books as part of my search for trying new things. I have always been interested in psychology and I found a book called Constructive Living. I thought, “Wow! He is saying things that I believe completely and it is a really practical concept.” So as one of my adventures, I went off and studied with this teacher, David Reynolds. I became certified to be a Constructive Living™ instructor which added a dimension to my life that was not about teaching drama, but it was about psychology. The principles that are fundamental to my book really came from the juxtaposition of studying improvisational theater on the one hand and psychology on the other. These two things came together in me so my work with my book Improv WISDOMis an amalgamation of an Eastern philosophy/psychology and some Western ideas about creativity, theater, and improv.

“It would seem odd on the one hand to be studying with a Japanese psychologist and then on the other hand studying improv.”

It would seem odd on the one hand to be studying with a Japanese psychologist and then on the other hand studying improv. Low and behold, all of this was necessary to create the world view which I have now and allows me to see life as an improvisation which can be utilized by moving constructively forward; trying new things and not getting pushed around by your feelings.

Avocationist: This probably explains the broad appeal of your book because people can relate to it from different places.

I want to follow up on one thing: you said you timed the book for your retirement. That was a conscious decision?

“I timed the retirement when I knew that the book was going to be published.”

Patricia: Yes. It was more like I timed the retirement when I knew that the book was going to be published. It took me a very long time to get a publisher. For all of 10 years I was sending drafts of a version of the book to various publishers and getting it sent back saying, “There are some interesting things here and you seem to have two books: you seem to have a manual on how to improvise, which is a drama book, and then you seem to have a self-help book here. Make up your mind on one or the other. Nobody is going to publish this kind of hybrid thing.” So it kept morphing.

At one point I thought, “I cannot seem to find a legitimate publisher so I will just publish it myself.” I have a friend in Canada who is a psychologist who had just published her own book on grieving and said, “I know this wonderful editor named Susan Mazie in British Columbia. You could probably hire her,” which I did. She was a private editor for me. We worked together and the goal of this was to help me self-publish it.

“You really will be able to find a publisher for this.”

We wrote for 4 months and I ended up spending a couple of thousand dollars; maybe $500/month for 4 months to have a personal editor who gave me feedback and good help with the book. When we got into a finished product, she said to me, “This is too good to self-publish. You really will be able to find a publisher for this. I am sure. Now that you have this, let’s see if we can’t put it into the pipeline again in a new way.”

“It was a dream and it was fabulous.”

What I found out at that point was that with a new version of the book the key thing was to write a book proposal. I did this when I got a New York agent. That was critical. This wonderful agent helped me draft the pitch for the book, which made it seem like people would want to publish it. When the proposal was done it went out to 35 major publishers in and around New York and 13 of them came back and expressed interest in wanting to buy the book. It was an amazing thing. I was ready to self-publish and all of a sudden we were having a bidding war. It was a dream and it was fabulous. That was in 2003. Fortunately, some of the publishers dropped out and two or three stayed until the end. The one that finally won the contract was the perfect publisher because the editor is a woman who publishes spiritual books and understood what this book was. She helped me with the writing and the conception of the book, so I had really, really brilliant help getting it to life. That was all happening and I knew I had a publication for spring of 2005.

“I am in this wonderfully agreeable situation where I am sitting back waiting for reality to bring me things to do..”

I had been winding down my teaching at Stanford and teaching only two quarters out of three so when it looked like the book was going to actually happen, I realized I was ready to officially enter retirement status at Stanford. I am so happy that I did. It has been perfect. I was extremely busy the first couple of years running around doing book appearances. I was the all university Honor’s Speaker at Southern Illinois University in 2007. I have had really nice gigs. I am not seeking them. I am at home and I have my website and the book is out there moving around. Every month or so I will get a call or get an email that says, “The book meant a lot to me and I want to do an interview” or “I would like to invite you to do something…” so I am in this wonderfully agreeable situation where I am sitting back waiting for reality to bring me things to do.

Avocationist: When you started writing your book, did you intend for it to be what it turned out to be for you, or did you have a different purpose in life?

“I have never dreamed big.”

Patricia: It was my deepest hope and dream that it would have a broad and wide readership, but I would never have believed in the outset that I would be able to accomplish it this way. I don’t have high ambitions. I really have had low hurdles for myself. I have never dreamed big. But there was a wish in my heart that before I die I could write a small, very slim book on philosophy that was based on what I do, that would also be helpful to people. To me the book is this funny wineskin of being an improv wisdom manual, but it says what I want to say. I have been trying to work on another book, but it is hard for me. I have said exactly all that I know is useful and I said it in the way that I planned; simple and clear. So why do I need to write another book? But on the other hand, people who have a message will often write another book teaching the same message, but in different way. I am hoping that I will be able to write some more and perhaps include more of my stories.

“I have had a really interesting life.”

I have had a really interesting life. I have been able to travel all over the globe and had some fascinating experiences. I think some of the crazy things that I have done and lessons I have learned in my life provide grist for another book.

Avocationist: Can you think of any stories in particular or experiences in particular that stand out for you?

“Traveling alone teaches you some amazing things about yourself.”

Patricia: The lay-away story that I am working on doesn’t sound very exotic, but it has the lesson of that we need - the importance of working for something and building on it and paying for it in advance. There are other things. I did a trip around the world in 1982 where I was on my own for about 19 months; India, Nepal, Thailand, Indonesia and Japan. Traveling alone teaches you some amazing things about yourself. I spent time at a Tibetan Buddhist Monastery. I ran away from a meditation retreat in Japan; I literally jumped the fence and hitchhiked back to reality because it felt like I was in a cult. I have some interesting stories about trying things and then learning the lessons from the crazy things you do.

Avocationist: Where there any people particularly helpful to you in your career?

“Know your purpose, accept reality and accept your feelings.”

Patricia: I would have to say that David Reynolds is one of the two main influences that have been seminal in my adult life. He helped me form a clear understanding of how humans work and given me excellent knowledge about how to live a purposeful life. One of the principles in constructive living is to know your purpose, accept reality and accept your feelings. Then do what you need to do and always maintain an awareness of what you are receiving from others. Those four things are the core of my life philosophy. Know or consider your purpose, accept reality as it is; you don’t have to like it but accept it. Then what you need to do is notice how much you are receiving from others.

“I like doing rather than lecturing.”

Another major influence on the improv side is Keith Johnstone who is a Canadian. He is an educator/teacher/philosopher whose book Impro has been important in my understanding. I have always been an active person. I like doing rather than lecturing. I am not good at all as a keynote speaker, but I am really good in the classroom where I am hopping around and we are active together seeing what works.

Avocationist: Based on what you have learned and experienced, what advice would you give to people who are trying to figure out what to do next?

“Be aware and try things. Take a step in some direction.”

Patricia: I would say, if you’ve got an inkling of something that you love
or something that is calling to you I would not say, “Just follow your passion.” That is kind of a cliché. I would say keep your eyes open because there may be offers all around you that you are not interpreting as offers yet. So an improviser is looking for anything that might be a possibility. Be aware and try things. Take a step in some direction. That might mean volunteering or giving yourself away or going out of your comfort zone. It might be something as simple as, “Well I am not really good at hiking – I don’t like it and I am not an outdoors kind of person - so I don’t think I will go on that Sierra Club walk.” But you might do it for another person to accompany them and please them. Try new things and see where they lead. Don’t miss the chance to join the dance of living in the now.

Avocationist: Do you have any regrets?

Patricia: I don’t think so. Not with anything I have done or not done.
Avocationist: You know of the people I talk to (and I look for people who have found a way to live their calling), I rarely have anybody say they have any regrets.
How would you like to be remembered?

“That would be a great legacy because I am proud of that book and would want it to live on.”

Patricia: I would love to be remembered as a teacher and the other thing I would love to be remembered for is that my book would live on. Since I don’t have children and I don’t have the legacy of a blood family from my personal loins, I think of Improv WISDOMas my child out in the world. I hope it lives on and it is in the 5th printing now. There have never been huge numbers of the book, but I would love for it to keep circulating in the world and about 100 years from now somebody will have that book in a backpack; an old book, a classic from the 20th century, their little of manual of good advice that could help someone in the future. That would be a great legacy because I am proud of that book and would want it to live on. The best favor you can do is to tell people about it or recommend it.

Avocationist: I think you have really boiled down a lot of things that, in my own experience, that a lot of these things are fundamental to human happiness; they are almost counter-cultural, in the sense that they are not what our current society thinks of and so forth, so people need to understand the power of these simple ideas, and how fun it is; it is so fun.

“That is finally where satisfaction comes, not just being an artist, but in some ways being useful to others.”

Patricia: Finally the message is, enjoy the ride! Try to find joy in whatever you are doing. It is seeing that the pleasure in the ordinary is in our daily life. I think if you have ever hurt your leg and couldn’t walk for awhile and then you finally get back the ability to walk normally, you think about what a blessing normalcy is and it is a pleasure in being able to walk. If you can walk again, you really know how fabulous it is. I think most of us are walking through our lives right now with a lot of ordinary capabilities that we can walk and breathe and eat and have a roof over our heads. We can feed ourselves and we have the capacity to get information and read books. We are, as Reynolds says in his book, “Thirsty, swimming in the lake,” that we are in the midst of paradise right now, no matter what our circumstance. We are in paradise right now need to wake up and see that, appreciate our lives now and spend time not only in following our wonder, but also turning our attention to being helpful to others. That is finally where satisfaction comes, not just being an artist, because that might be it, but in some ways being useful to others.

Avocationist: That is the purpose part. What do you think you will do next?

“I am always happy to show up as a teacher from time to time.”

Patricia: That is a really good question and I ask myself that a lot and I get ideas from time to time. One of the things that I might do is really seriously blogging. I have a blog that I have been a dilettante with; the blog is http://www.mymprovwisdom.blogspot. com and it has probably 20-30 posts the last couple of years, just book reviews and stuff I did. I think the world of blogging can be really helpful to a lot of folks and I might get myself into a weekly blog, so that is one possibility. The other thing is to probably put some serious effort into this book of stories of my life and get another book into the world. In the meantime I am getting ready to show up teaching a class for Continuing Studies. I am always happy to show up as a teacher from time to time.

Avocationist: Is there anything you wanted to talk about that we didn’t get to?

Patricia: I don’t think so. You have asked wonderful questions and I am grateful for your comprehension of my book and my ideas, so you have made it easy.

Avocationist: My pleasure. When I work on my book I will share it with you because I think there is a big overlap. I am just looking at it through a different lens, but I think we are touching on some similar topics and your book has been really helpful as well.

Patricia: Let me know and I will be one of the first ones to buy a copy.

Tags: Career Advice · Creative Jobs · Education · Teaching

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