Let go of your agenda: What two five-year-olds taught me about improv

Let go of your agenda: What two five-year-olds taught me about improv

Once, when my oldest daughter was in kindergarten in Portland, she had a playdate scheduled with a friend from her old pre-school.

This girl had recently been through a devastating family tragedy, so, wanting to help, I thought carefully about how to make this the most special effin’ playdate that anyone had ever seen.

What could be more fun, I thought, than learning to make sushi together? Over the course of a week, I researched and visited multiple Japanese markets, curating the proper ingredients and equipment: Bamboo rolling mats, the right seaweed, expensive polished rice, and kid-friendly fillings.

When, at last, the Saturday morning of the playdate arrived, I’d prepped the rice to proper sushi specs and lined up the tools and fillings on the counter as if I were prepping for a visit from the Food Network rather than a five-year-old girl. But it would be worth it.

I brought the girls to the kitchen to give them a demo of the proper technique for rolling the rice in the seaweed. They seemed a little bored, but I persisted, pretending not to notice. Before the first sushi roll was complete, the two girls had wandered out of the kitchen.

“Wait!” I yelled after them. “What about the sushi?” I caught what might have been the slightest edge of desperation in my voice.

In improv, we talk about the importance of letting go of your agenda. You may walk onto stage with an idea, but if your scene partner offers you something that doesn’t fit, your job is to instantly drop your old idea and co-create the best possible story together out of what’s happening in the moment.

It was time for me to let go of my agenda. I didn’t call after the girls again.

Instead, I stayed in the kitchen, rolling up what seemed like endless tubes of seaweed, the burr-like pellets of rice attaching themselves to my clothes, as I grew ever-more nauseated from sampling too much of my handiwork. And if I’m being honest, I’ll tell you that I was feeling disappointed that the special effin’ experience I had put together for them was a total bust.

A couple hours later, the girl’s father came to pick her up. When they were gone, I asked my daughter how their time had been. She told me that, while they were playing, they talked about the girl’s difficult experience and her sadness. They were both sad together.

Suddenly, I imagined this what this girl’s life must have been like in recent weeks, surrounded by well-meaning grown-ups, pressing our agendas of effortful cheer and frenetic activities as we tried to block the real offer that was before us because we just couldn’t handle it.

At that moment, I realized that, in spite of my efforts, those girls might have just had the most special effin’ playdate anyone had ever seen after all.

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