4 Ways a Traveling Improv Mindset Leads to a Successful Cuban Adventure

Cuba, like Italy, had been in my mind’s eye since high school. However, unlike Italy, Cuba has been deep in political and social turmoil, and, the island’s relations with the United States have been non-existent for half a century. With relations (somewhat) restored since the Obama administration, Americans are able to visit Cuba legally under 12 categories. One of these categories is the People to People Tour that most Americans can qualify for — even if most Americans can’t afford it. The definition of the People to People Tour, according to Insight Cuba, is:

“Travel-related transactions pursuant to this authorization must be for the purpose of engaging, while in Cuba, in a full-time schedule of activities intended to enhance contact with the Cuban people, support civil society in Cuba, or promote the Cuban people’s independence from Cuban authorities; Each traveler has a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities that will result in meaningful interaction between the traveler and individuals in Cuba.”

So ready for Cuba, I even match the buildings!

The unfortunate situation is that a tour operator such as Intrepid Travel normally offers small group responsible, sustainable travel tours – focusing on real life experiences – that are one-third to half less than the People to People tour. So what’s the difference? The People to People tours are only for Americans, include very little free time, and, have a Canadian chaperone along for the ride as per the licensing agreement. While I highly recommend Intrepid, as their tours are geared toward people who want more than a mass tourism scratch-the-surface experience, it’s hard to swallow the $3,000 price tag that accompanies ALL week long People to People tours no matter the operator.

The privilege of traveling to Cuba as an American is costly. And, the amenities are few. Below are mild “warnings” that Intrepid issues to ensure that the People to People experience is a good fit for interested travelers:

  • Power cuts and breaks in hot water are sometimes unavoidable, as in any developing country.
  • Luxuries such as air conditioning, and even toilet seats, are often scarce.
  • Internet access can be hard to come by, and when it’s available it’s often unreliable and expensive.
  • Things don’t always go according to plan, and many things don’t work the same way as back home. Patience and good humor will go a long way in Cuba.

So what’s a potential American traveler to do? If you can afford the fee, GO – and go now because the current administration isn’t moving Cuban relations forward. And, how can patience and good humor be front and center at all times to ensure that the investment is a positive one? Use a traveling improv mindset for a more meaningful – and successful –  experience:

Would you rather chat with this gentleman or chat on Facebook?

1.Be flexible. Unscripted play requires the ability to go in a new direction at any given moment, as no one really knows what might unfold. In order to embrace the local culture, flavor and traditions, we need to let go of what we imagine the place will be like and embrace how the place actually is. Old Havana was a lot grittier than what was planted in my imagination; however, I still managed to find architecture and vintage cars and plazas that supported my vision. And, when I didn’t, I tried to embrace the reality of the situation – despite massive heat and humidity, which never shows up on any of the travel websites!

2.Be in the moment. The most important moment in improv is right now. The past is over and the future hasn’t happened, so this moment is what matters. While traveling, it’s often easy to lose sight of the present moment by being consumed with taking photos, videos, selfies etc. Be sure to take time to put down the travel guide, get off of social media and be fully immersed in whatever is happening – even if it’s nothing. In Cuba, this is much easier to do because Internet access is so limited! Instead of griping about it, use it as an opportunity to become more present. After all, Facebook will be there when you get home – a conversation with a local won’t. One of my favorite moments was chatting – in Spanish – with my local host on her porch rocking chairs in Viñales.

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Using Play to Combat Storm Fatigue

After experiencing two hurricanes in 23 months – in an area of Florida that was to have been hurricane-free – I can say that some of us in St. Augustine are resilient. Some of us are just plain tired. And some of can be found engrossed in play.

Last year, besides making donations and spreading the word about resources through social media outlets, I also mucked out flooded houses in my neighborhood. While the work was necessary, I realized I wasn’t very good at it and I wondered how else I could be supporting the community. This time I turned to what I know how to do – play. That might seem like an odd thing to contribute after a natural disaster because technically we don’t “need” play. However, play helps combat stress, it helps us connect with others, and, it has been shown to increase resiliency. And that’s the key to surviving — and thriving — after a natural disaster hits.

Blowing off some steam during Teen Club’s Post-Irma Improv Playshop at Limelight Theatre

So we held our improv class (for grown-ups) three days after the storm and invited all levels of students. Those that were able to attend were thankful for the outlet as the days prior had been filled with nothing but stress and fear. One student told me it was the only time she wasn’t thinking about the flooding in her house. Two days later, we held an improv playshop for kids who had been out of school for 10 days. Several of them wanted to know why it had to end after “only” two hours. Seven days after that, we hosted Caffeinated Comedy – an improv show to benefit the United Way of St. John County’s Hurricane Irma Relief Fund. While the fundraiser was hugely successful as it raised $1,000 for hurricane victims, and brought much needed customers into City Bistro who had suffered a financial hit due to the storm, it brought something else into the space – laughter. The United Way representative got emotional not just about the fundraising dollars, but about the packed room of people sharing laughter, which was in very short supply during – and after – Hurricane Irma.

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4 Ways to Earn Trust Using Improv Wisdom

Have you ever walked into a group space to find out you’ll be participating in experiential learning? Look around the room at the faces and the body language. Do you see clenched fists? Maybe people have started to grind their teeth a bit. Perhaps there’s even a sudden line at the rest rooms. Believe it or not, the first night of  a level 1 improv class can be like this.


Because people don’t always trust others when it comes to group experiences. Watching a presenter, taking notes in a class, attending training online is safe. However, when it comes to getting into the space, interacting as a group and pushing the comfort zone boundary, the stakes are higher. Whether you have an active role in leading the group, or whether you are a participant, practice these four pieces of improv wisdom to ease discomfort:

1. Show up – Yes, this seems so obvious that it’s almost a waste of space to even mention, right? Not necessarily. When we talk about showing up, we really mean having a presence. Be in the space. Be with the group. Actively listen and engage. Stay off of electronic devices and instead make eye contact. When you’re completely in the moment, you’re more likely to be supported and more readily able to offer support. When I host Yes Minglers, which are playful events to get people intentionally connecting, I often collect cell phones at the door. Why? To reinforce the idea of being “here now.”

2. Communicate – If you have information that would benefit the group, share it. If you have experiences the group would be interested in, share them. If you have neither, ask the group an open ended question and use it as an opportunity to get people sharing, and, most importantly, connecting. One of my favorite camp counselors has a wonderful question he uses to get people interacting, “Can you share one highlight of your travels, your work, your summer, etc.?” It works every time. Read more »

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5 Questions to Answer When Seeking a Remarkable Life

Living a remarkable life in a conventional world is no small task. Even so, every year the streets of downtown Portland are teeming with people from around the world who do just that. Brought together by the World Domination Summit – a gathering of creative thinkers who value service, community and adventure – these like-minded souls have made alternative choices in life. Because of these choices, various corners of the world benefit.

As a four-year WDS veteran, I came home with new friends, new swag, new memories as well as the same information overload that happens every year. However, in those pages of notes lay a few key questions that jumped off the notebook. For me, these five questions are the foundation for navigating a remarkable life:

1. What do you want out of life?

Several people have asked me to write an improv book. Others have encouraged me to become a nomadic improv teacher. While both of these sound like amazing ideas, I realized I don’t want either of them enough to make the sacrifices necessary for these ideas to become reality – even though I see other people having successful books and tours. It’s easy to be envious of others in today’s oversaturated social media world. However, think about what you really want. If you’re jealous of a location independent blogger, do you want to give up your house and pets and put your belongings in storage to live out of a backpack for an extended period of time? If you do, great – get on it then. If you don’t, then you really don’t want location independence for your life – you merely like the idea of it. Think about it – what do you want badly enough that you’re willing to take risks and maybe even make some sacrifices?

2. What can you uniquely offer the world?

My students who have taken improv classes in other cities tell me that my classes are so different than what they’ve experienced in the past. Of course! My voice is different than that other teacher’s. If these same students go to another city, they’ll tell the new improv teacher the same thing. Just because you spend time – whether it’s work or play – doing the same thing as someone else doesn’t mean you have the same voice. Only you have your unique point of view.

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3 Ways to be a Stellar Team Member

This week my Level 1 Improv class ended at Limelight Theatre. After eight weeks together, students were scurrying around connecting on Facebook, requesting a yearbook of their time together and generally dragging their feet leaving the room as no one wanted the team experience to come to an end. Why?

Because although they had entered the room as strangers only two months prior, the group had formed bonds through successful team engagement.

While every improv class is a shared group experience that focuses on connecting, not every group gels as beautifully as this one. The same can be said of improv troupes, sports teams, work units, families and any other environment where groups of people co-exist. So what made this group play so well together? Each person agreed to:

1. Show up. While at first glance this seems easy and obvious, it really isn’t. Not only are you to literally show up in the space, but you must set your phone aside, make eye contact, participate, engage and be willing to be part of the process the group is experiencing. No sitting on the sidelines or else the group dynamic suffers.

2. Be positive. I often talk about how I can coach someone to improve improv skills, but I can’t coach someone to have a better attitude. Positivity breeds positivity. The same can be said for negativity. A group that enters their shared space smiling with the mindset of “let’s try” rather than “that won’t work” looks forward to working, creating, playing together again and again.

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Missing the Moment? Me Too.

Last month I had the unusual opportunity to visit both major cities — Philadelphia and Denver — I’ve lived in within a three-week period. It was almost like a two-part version of “This is Your Life” with various friends and family members congregating at old hangout spots – no improv required. As fun as it sounds, there are also potential pitfalls to an intense walk down memory lane with a robust cast of characters. They include:

  1. Playing the “What if …?” game. “What if” I still lived here? “What if” I never left? “What if” I took a different job, made a different choice, dated a different person, adopted a different pet, had a different hairstyle, a different outfit, a different color toenail polish – yes, it can get that ridiculous.
  2. The tourist vs. resident trap. Go back to a place you used to live and visit only your favorite places and your favorite people – while also avoiding doing any work and you’ve just found yourself on vacation in a former hometown.
  3. The dumbed down memory. When you’ve been away from something or someone for a while, your memory dulls about that subject. The details your memory tends to hold onto are the good ones because everything was always better “back then.” Whenever I get nostalgic about Philadelphia, I have to remember that it could take upwards of 20 minutes to find a parking spot near-ish my South Philly row house on a Friday night.

This month I returned to Southern California for the first time in 20 some years. In February of 1995 I was offered a position in Newport Beach – one week after I set myself up in my first real apartment in Philadelphia and one week before I met my first husband. The “What if …?” game jumped off the charts.

What if I had accepted that position? How would my life be now?

And then I ended up in Patricia Ryan Madson’s Improv for Humans workshop at the Global Improvisation Initiative Symposium in Irvine.

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Who’s Afraid of the Big, Bad Improv Wolf?

I remember the very first day of improv class at the training center I attended in Denver. The room was so quiet you could practically hear everyone breathing. No one sat together. No one made eye contact. No one even seemed like they came into the space voluntarily – not even me.

And I had already been through an entire training program in Philadelphia.

In fact, I had already been on an improv troupe. So why was I – along with everyone else – acting like the big, bad improv wolf was about to eat us?

3 Reasons:

1. “I suck.” So many fears fall into this category. The fear of not being funny enough. The fear of just not being enough – period. The fear of stumbling in the moment and not knowing what to say or do. The fear of not being a big enough personality. However, in improv if we trust the process and get out of our way, we don’t suck. It’s really that easy. Except it isn’t. It’s hard to trust the process because ego is involved. Which bring us to the next reason …

2. “I’ll look ridiculous.” Yes, you will look ridiculous. And so will I. And so will everyone in the room. However, the person who looks the most ridiculous is the person who isn’t committed to looking ridiculous. Make sense? When everyone commits to the exercise, the game, the activity, the truth is that no one looks ridiculous because everyone is supporting and accepting and making each other look brilliant. The person who can’t commit to going big, is often the person who might not be trustworthy which leads us to the final reason…

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5 Reasons to Laugh at Nothing at All

Whenever I reveal to someone that I’m a certified laughter yoga leader the conversation is always the same.

“You’re a WHAT?!”

“A certified laughter yoga leader.”

“Did you say laughter yoga?”

“Sure did!”

“So… you laugh while you do yoga poses?”

“Nope, no poses. You breathe in between laughing.”

“What do you laugh at?”

“Nothing, nothing at all!”


So what IS this laughter yoga thing anyway?

It’s this: Breathing, Stretching, Clapping, Laughing, Relaxation, Meditation

Getting ready to lead laughter yoga to a group of nurses – ho, ho, ha ha ha!

More importantly why do laughter yoga? For me, laughter yoga is the sweet spot. It’s the high of an improv class mixed with the zen of a yoga class. It makes me feel like I’ve connected to the people in the room while my abs get a workout (think big belly laughs) and my mind gets time to rest and become grounded.

At the same time, it’s really, really silly. Why would you want to be in a room of people doing something such as shooting fake arrows at each other while laughing? Why would you want to stretch your arm while winding up a fake bowling ball and inhaling deeply? Why would you want to lie on the floor imagining a smile in your toe that makes its way to your mouth?

Great questions! Here’s why:

1. Your mood will shift – Laughter yoga boosts your mood quickly because it releases endorphins from your brain. When I would attend my Monday laughter yoga club sessions at lunchtime in Denver, I’d show up in a grouchy Monday mood and be a different person at the end of the hour.

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5 Ways to Avoid Being an A** Hole When Traveling in Southeast Asia

A few weeks ago, when I arrived in Hanoi after 35 hours of traveling, I ate a snack and then slept for more than 12 hours. It was glorious. Once up and out, after figuring out the lay of the land, the first significant adventure was performing in an improv show with The Rotten Grapes – an improv troupe comprised of international players that were all strangers to me. However, despite suffering from jet lag and traveler’s stomach, and, being surrounded with a room full of new faces, the vibe in the room was strangely familiar. Starting off a big adventure halfway around the world with an improv event grounded me, and, helped me embrace the improv mindset moving forward. In doing so, I was reminded that I was a visitor in a culture different than my own and that a spirit of discovery would guide my journey, helping me to avoid being an a** hole. Unfortunately, not everyone starts off a travel experience with an improv event. In those cases, this five-step guide is a great reminder of how we can avoid the “a** hole” trap.

Me with The Rotten Grapes improv troupe

1. Put on Your Pants

It is hot in Cambodia – very hot. And, there are temples in Cambodia – lots of temples. Imagine visiting Angkor Wat — a Cambodian temple complex that is the largest religious monument in the world – and being very, very hot. Now think about wearing a tank top, short shorts or even worse – see through pants with a thong on underneath (yes, I actually saw this last one). If you do, you might be stopped and asked to purchase a scarf or a skirt because although you may be a tourist/backpacker/atheist/whatever, many others are visiting the temples for religious purposes. Bottom line? Just because Lonely Planet rated Angkor Wat as the world’s number one site, it was not created to be a tourist attraction.

Improv wisdom: It’s not about you – it’s about the community.

2. Say “See Ya!” to Selfie Sticks

Wearing my pants in Angkor Wat

Of course we take selfies to document our adventures. And, maybe we can do so without the sticks? One memory that is etched in my brain is the day I saw someone take a selfie – with a selfie stick – inside Ho Chi Minh City’s War Remnants Museum with photos of people affected by agent orange in the background. No, no, no! Many parts of Southeast Asia are crowded. Many parts of Southeast Asia are poor. And, some parts of Southeast Asia have had very difficult histories due to war and ethnic cleansing and don’t need your selfie stick waving around showing disrespect. Instead show kindness and compassion.

Improv wisdom: Play while you travel – to the top of your intelligence.

3. Practice Being Pizza Free

Sometimes when you’ve been on the road for a while, you just want something that tastes like home. I get it! I craved cheese really bad about ten days into this trip. However, if you aren’t traveling for an extended period of time, why not try to embrace the local flavors for a more authentic experience? One evening, our group ended up in a tourist trap (think the Southeast Asia version of TGIF) on Pub Street in Siem Reap (bad). My husband ordered a pizza (really bad). Then the pizza turned out to be so horrible it was replaced with a second pizza – equally as horrible (really, really bad). Cambodia isn’t known for pizza. Save it for when you get home – it will taste even better then. Use the time in Southeast Asia to learn to use chopsticks while none of your friends are watching!

Improv wisdom: The scene begins when the first unusual thing happens – step away from your ordinary when dining.

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How Might You Say, “Yes” to 2017?

Just Say YesIt’s that time of the month where people start to let go of new year’s resolutions. Instead of holding onto the pressure that accompanies resolutions, why not say, “yes” to something – anything – that enables you to move forward personally and/or professionally?

When I was laid up after foot surgery two years ago at this time, I said, “yes” to researching coastal communities. I didn’t say, “yes” to moving – instead I embraced the small action step — that lead to another small action step — that lead to a big move. Without having completed the small task, the big challenge could never have been possible.

In improv, we practice this – a lot. As humans we are conditioned to find all the reasons why something won’t work. We look for excuses to shut down, to predict failure, to use “no” as a protective shield. In improv, the “yes” moves things forward on stage – and on the stage of life. Imagine if this were the norm. What might we create as a society?

Those three letters have transformational powers — and I’m not the only one who has been impacted by the power of “yes!”…

“Saying ‘yes’ allowed me to challenge myself in my career and succeed at things that I never thought I was capable of handling.”

~ Claudine, Malvern, PA


“I said ‘yes’ to improv classes, not to get on stage, but because I like the philosophy behind it. I like being placed in uncomfortable situations—it has helped me get a deeper understanding of who I am.”

~ Alexandra, San Juan, PR


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