Permission to Play: Improv and Your Inner Child

Sometimes the most meaningful moments in an improv class come in the first ten minutes when students have time to share and be vulnerable. Performing on stage with strangers requires trust, and trust is rarely earned without vulnerability. We spend so much time playing status games with neighbors and putting up walls to coworkers that allowing ourselves to be exposed can be extremely difficult. But sometimes the simple things that seem challenging, like sharing to a group, can also be deeply rewarding.

One day, I asked my students to talk about an object from their childhood that had symbolic meaning to them. Each individual object the students recollected revealed a deeper truth about them. There have been so many great examples that have been shared, but my favorite (told here with permission) was from Thom.

Thom's symbolic object was a puppet of the Popeye character Wimpy. He found it when his family went on a trip to New York City in the early 60s. It was lying in the gutter and Thom picked it up, saved it from oblivion. It quickly became his favorite toy. He took it everywhere. He talked to it. His parents were worried because he loved it so much. One day Thom took the puppet to school and kept it on his hand. His teacher was not pleased and sent him down the long hall to the dreaded principal's office. The no-nonsense principal yanked the puppet off his hand, threw it in the trash, and informed Thom that he was too old to play with toys. And that was the last poor Thom saw of his Wimpy puppet. You can imagine how upsetting it must have been.

Thom's story reminded me of a time when I was in 5th grade playing at recess. I was splashing in puddles and playing when the teacher called everyone to go inside. I was having so much fun playing that I didn't notice everyone in line. When I finally straggled over, the kids in line all started saying, "We see you Colin." I realized that my teacher had instructed them to make that comment to shame me for seeking attention, which wasn't even true. It was a moment that stayed with me way longer than it should have. It was my puppet in the trashcan.

When I arrived home, I felt compelled to see whether I could find a wimpy puppet on Ebay. There couldn't be too many Wimpy puppets form the 50s and 60s. Sure enough, I found one that I was certain was the same puppet as Thom's. And it wasn't too expensive. So, I bought it for him and gave it to him on the final class. To me, it was more than a little puppet: it was the reason I helped create Improv Cincinnati. I was giving Thom permission to play.


A final comment. Thom told me that he took the puppet to work to share the story with his colleagues. He said that one coworker grabbed the puppet off his hand and threw it in the trashcan. Hearing that really made me upset. You're never too old for someone to tell you you're too old to play. If you ever have someone like that in your life, just do what Thom did and pick that puppet out of the trashcan. Give yourself permission to play.