I first entered the world of improv my freshman year of high school. I joined our theatre program, acting in four plays and musicals that year, and jumped at the chance to learn anything new. At our school’s annual carnival, the drama club put on an improv show for our fellow students. It was very relaxed, no stakes, just for fun. I doubt that I was great at it, but I got at least a few good laughs and learned the very basics of how improvisation works. During my first year of theatre, I learned just how important it is to keep your energy up and to give it your all. People can tell when you’re not feeling the emotion you’re trying to convey; if you’re not feeling it, the audience isn’t either. Wanting to participate in every show I could, I auditioned for our Spring musical, Grease (note the cliché). I was terrified. I had never before sang seriously in front of anyone. I had never danced in front of people outside of my middle school all-female dance circles, populated by pre-teens and Kodak disposable cameras. I had never memorized dance routines. But I figured it out and I already knew all about keeping my energy up and being enthusiastic, so I was frequently featured as a background student. For one of the large group numbers during the prom scene in Grease, I was placed right in the front (which led to my shoe flying off and almost hitting a girl when I was a little too enthused during “Shake, Rock, and Roll!” but that’s a different story).
In improv, like at times during Peace Corps service, you’re not allowed to say “no.” “No” ends the scene and leaves no room for your fellow actors (or counterparts or PCVs or host country nationals) to continue. The most basic tenet of improv is “Yes, and…”
Most of what I do as a Peace Corps volunteer, especially in my first year, started as improv. And by that I mean I had no idea what I was doing but I was great at making it look like I knew what I was doing. Often in Indonesia, volunteers are asked to do things that they are in no way qualified for: sing a song in front of a large crowd, singlehandedly motivate students to want to learn English, teach lessons on religion and racial politics in America–these are all things people have expected me capable of and that I’ve pulled off with varying degrees of success.
My first week here in Kupang, my host dad pulled me into a traditional line dance at a family wedding. I had no idea what I was doing but I danced anyway and I learned. Same thing happened at school–every Friday the students and teachers have a fitness day, which tends to mostly be traditional dances and sitting around. I was not only asked to join in but to compete with the teachers in a dance competition on Independence Day. I said “Yes, and” by joining and adding some of my own flair during our performance, much to the delight of my kids who enjoy having a huge dork for a teacher. I have said “Yes, and” to fitness days since by initiating a weekly 5K run with the students–a bit more of a workout than line dances. I have said “Yes, and” by bringing in my own traditional line dance to share (It’s Electric!).
Just last night we had our first storytelling competition meeting. Full disclosure: I hate storytelling competitions. The kids memorize and recite stories in English, usually with some overwrought moral value in it. There’s no learning going on. But I said yes to helping–“Yes, and” actually, because not only did I somehow end up running the meeting even though I’d never done a storytelling club before, but I offered to record myself reading the story so the students could better practice at home and they were really excited about it. These are the sorts of things you can pull of with a little confidence and a big dose of enthusiasm if you’re good at improv.
Indonesians sometimes expect my native speaking skills to come with certain magical abilities. There’s a hope that my English ability will rub off on students by osmosis. Or sometimes teachers here expect me to have some brilliant, innovative game or technique that is the key to all the students speaking fluently. Similarly, I once had a woman demand I rub her pregnant daughter’s belly in the hopes that her baby would have a “sharp” nose like mine: a much sought after quality here. Unfortunately for that fetus, I think genetics will trump whatever magical qualities may lie within me.
But there is a magic. It’s not American magic. It’s the magic of having two years (or three) to dedicate to the betterment of a community. There’s a magic to Peace Corps paying for my room and board so that I can spend 100% of my time and energy doing whatever best serves this community. There’s a magic to enthusiasm and saying “Yes, and.” My counterparts and community organizers tend to have second jobs and families and a million things going on but I just have this one thing, this one obligation on which I can focus my magic. My Peace Corps magic means that for three years, I have the potential to give most of myself and my time. And that’s a gift I sometimes take for granted.
In theatre and in Peace Corps you make it work and you always give it your all. Enthusiasm makes up for many shortcomings. I am not a skilled dancer but I was frequently featured in musicals because I had no fear of acting like a fool. And I mastered the art of improvisation both on stage and in the classroom here. It’s easy to engage and make students here laugh–all it takes is a silly dance that they would never expect to come from a serious adult English teacher like myself. Enthusiasm and improv have brought me far here and keep me saying “Yes, and.”