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Finding Balance
by Dawn Mueller

For some people, their love affair with improv has a tendency to also become a love affair with other improvisers. Others manage to resist this temptation and create a life with what some in the improv community have come to affectionately refer to as "muggles" (the term used in the Harry Potter books to describe people without magical powers). While it may seem like the combination of an improviser and a muggle would be a difficult one to maintain, there are a number of improvisers who prefer it that way.

Ed O'Rourke, member of the Playground ensemble Black Sheep, says of dating a non-improviser, "I've been so involved with improv and improvisers for the past seven years, it's great to be able to interact with someone who has different ideas and passions in life." He feels that having time away from the same old crowd is important and that because of this, he has been leaning towards increasing his non-improv activities in the past year or so.

O'Rourke has been around the community for a number of years already, but things are a little different for new improvisers who are trying to maintain a relationship and learn the art of improv at the same time. Liz Allen, famed coach and teacher at Improv Olympic (IO) and former member of IO's Frank Booth, says, "It depends on where you are in the improv learning curve. Early improvisers tend to immerse themselves much more than those who've been around a while so it creates more stress for those who are trying to maintain relationships at the same time."

"It isn't always easy to find the balance. It can definitely lead to some rough compromises." - Liz Allen

In my case, I got into improv after I'd been in a relationship for a good number of years and I've been immersing myself ever since. Unfortunately, this shifted my relationship at home for a while until I was able to get back to center and find a point of balance. I still don't feel like I’m there exactly, but as Allen says, "It isn't always easy to find the balance. It can definitely lead to some rough compromises."

Still, this could be said of any romantic relationship an improviser has. Mike Berg, member of the highly recommended troupe pH, believes, "There are pros and cons to improvisers dating improvisers, and improvisers dating non-improvisers." Compromises would need to be made in either case, but he and his fiancée, Erica, have found a way to make their situation work for them and they seem extremely happy. Erica believes it's all about give and take. She says, "I 'give' him the time to do the improv he wants, and in return, he's sensitive to how much time he 'takes.'"

While she recognizes that it hasn't always been easy for them, especially in regards to the time spent away from each other, she realizes that, for the most part, Berg's involvement in improv has probably brought them closer together. She also appreciates the social outlet it has given them as a couple.

"There are pros and cons to improvisers dating improvisers, and improvisers dating non-improvisers." - Mike Berg

Certainly one of the benefits to dating fellow improvisers would have to come from never having to see a blank stare if you try to talk about group mind and improv theory with your beloved. In her case though, Allen took the time to explain the theory of the art to her husband, Doug, which has made it much more interesting to him. Though he has never taken a class, he recognizes the power of group mind and appreciates the art for what it is.

Unlike Doug, some partners of improvisers have taken improv classes at some point and either decided it wasn't their thing or thought they might pick it up again later if the desire became strong enough. In Tristan Tanner's case, she actually met her partner, Josh, in a college improv group. The two of them later moved to Chicago specifically so she could pursue improv. Already part of the successful group, pH, Tanner keeps Josh so busy attending all the shows she performs in, reviewing all of her classes with him, and walking with her to classes that he would be hard pressed to find time for his own improv group. Of course none of this is required of Josh; it is what he chooses to do to show his support.

Still, she encourages him to try some classes and audition if that's what he wants to do. Admittedly, though, she doesn't try to encourage him too much lest she lose her status as the funny one in the relationship. In Allen's case, she wishes her husband would at least try taking an improv class, but she understands that he is not the performer type and likes that they don't have the same circle of friends.

He realizes that family is more important than improv and believes that sacrifices are all part of being a grown-up.

Lee Walter's partner, Meredith, recently took a class at Improv Olympic with him and, as he put it, "deeply disliked it." She did, however, gain a new appreciation for what he does in his spare time. Walter currently performs on the Playground team Obey and with Stylus, a sketch group. Ironically, it was a gift from Meredith that brought Walter to his first improv class at Comedy Sportz. Their relationship has gotten more complicated as a result and he's had to pull back on the number of theater ventures he takes on, but with the addition of a puppy to the household, things seem to be heading towards a more healthy balance for them.

As for additions of the more time-consuming nature, Jesse Parent, co-editor of UtahImprov.com and instructor and performer with Utah's Knock Your Socks Off (KYSOff) and Quick Wits (among others), has a lot of experience. In addition to all of his outside projects, he and his wife, Julia are parents to two small children, one of whom does not take well to baby-sitters. This more or less means his wife has to stay home with the children when he is out performing and teaching. As a result, she has only seen half of one of his live shows. While she wishes that he were involved a little less with improv, she also understands that he is not a fun person if he doesn't have an outlet.

For Jesse's part, he has had to accept that, "There is a responsibility factor that comes with being married with children." At the same time though, he thinks it's good to be able to escape those responsibilities from time to time and get refreshed so he can refocus on his wife and family. He makes sure her needs are getting met by checking in with her before committing to any major time-consuming event. He also makes sure he understands her needs and feelings about time. She says, "Jesse is very good at letting me know how much he values me, my opinions, and he is a great father and husband."

"I think when you close your significant other out of an area of your life, further separation and resentment will follow." - Mike Berg

He adds, "Being in a relationship, especially where children are involved, means sacrificing your own selfish desires to make sure that the good of all is considered." He realizes that family is more important than improv and believes that sacrifices are all part of being a grown-up.

All the stress and strain on a relationship can sometimes seem like too much for a muggle to take, but those who I spoke with really seem to support their partners as much as humanly possible. From moving across the country to taking on more household duties to just coming to shows, the non-improvising partners of the people I surveyed are more than happy to be there, wherever that may be.

In return, improvisers make their partners a part of the art that they are so passionate about. Berg says, "I think when you close your significant other out of an area of your life, further separation and resentment will follow. So I try to involve her in everything I do, and be involved in what she does. This doesn't mean always doing the same things, but talking, listening, and having a genuine interest in what's important to each other. That actually helps the relationship."

The sacrifices on the side of the non-improviser seem to far outweigh those of the improviser at times, which is why a balance is sometimes hard to reach.

As Tanner's partner Josh says, "Improv is a huge part of Tristan's life, and Tristan is a huge part of mine, so I'm willing to make sacrifices. Ultimately, even though improv is Tristan's thing, it's important to me because it's important to her."

In a way, it seems that the improviser in a relationship with a non-improviser has the best of both worlds. The sacrifices on the side of the non-improviser seem to far outweigh those of the improviser at times, which is why a balance is sometimes hard to reach. Yet as Berg points out, "Every single thing you do prevents you from doing something else. You just have to make the best choices. In a strong relationship, the benefits far outweigh the penalties."

It's all about finding the right balance, the right number of trade-offs, and developing a system that will work for you as a couple. It's not easy, but having an understanding, supportive partner definitely helps. It also helps if you incorporate one of the cardinal rules of improv into your relationship: "Take out the garbage tonight? Yes, and I'd love to take you out to dinner."

This article originally appeared on September 24, 2003 as a feature on ChicagoImprov.org.
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