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The Chancellor is in: Biddy Martin

And now…Madison’s Moms of Comedy

For the women behind Madison’s Monkey Business Institute, improv isn’t just one more thing on their busy schedules, it’s a way of life

By Jenny Fiore
Photographed by Amber Arnold

In the basement of Glass Nickel Pizza Co.’s Atwood Avenue location lies a cozy dining area where every Saturday night laughter overtakes the chatter and comedic anarchy unfolds on stage. About a year ago, I found myself there, waiting for a performance by the Monkey Business Institute, a local improv comedy troupe. By show’s end, my sides ached from laughing. The “old me” ached, too—a woman still swimming to the surface after the tidal wave of motherhood had washed over her. Rushing home to relieve the babysitter, I felt a bittersweet sense that this was my tribe. 

I grew up around irreverent women—not suffragists or bra-burners, mind you—just nice Midwestern ladies who regularly set aside their dignity in the name of a good laugh. These were straight arrows with bent senses of humor and questionable impulse-control, which explains why the spontaneous, side-splitting show performed by the Monkey Business Institute reminded me of my roots. Given an opportunity last month to meet with the five women from this troupe of 20 performers for a round-table discussion, I felt like it was kismet.

By night, Jennifer Salas, Linda Hedenband, Vanessa Tortolano, Sarah Rogers and Sheila Robertson play a vital part in the success of the Monkey Business empire, which not only puts on weekly shows at Glass Nickel, but offers regular improv lessons and specialty workshops for businesses. By day, they’re busy heading their own careers, being mothers all the while. I quickly learned that among them, they have eight children (and another on the way!). One heads a blended family, another has a child with special needs, and yet another became a mom at 47 with just three days’ notice, taking legal guardianship of an 8-year-old relative. 

Talking with these freestyle humorists, I found they have an almost meditative perspective on their work. Ideas like mindfulness, acceptance and openness punctuated our conversation, drawing unexpected parallels between improv and Buddhism that fascinated me. As did those between improv and motherhood: relinquishing control, reconnecting with your inner child, and finding oneness in giving yourself over to another. 
Their art is rooted in an attitude they call “Yes, and…”, which works both onstage and off. Burned dinner? Yes, and now you know the smoke alarm works. Lost downtown? Yes, and what a great view of the Capitol! 

Who better, then, to teach us the mantra that mothers everywhere already know? That is, in life, you’ve got to roll with the punches. Here’s how they do it.

Jenny Fiore: I think improv boils down to being accepting of and in the moment. Is that a good assessment?
Jennifer Salas: [And] learning to build on it. When my 4-year-old plays, she’s got the whole story arc figured out and knows exactly how she wants it to end. If you come at her with a change of plot, she freaks out. But that’s what improv is, and that’s what life is: You’re going along. You make a choice. But you’re not alone, someone else is going to contribute. You’ve got to let go of what you were thinking, accept what they said, and the ultimate acceptance is building on what they gave you.

Fiore: It sounds like improv requires an open mind, which is not how most of us are hardwired, as you just described with your daughter. This leads me to your corporate trainings. What’s the objective of improv there: teaching people to be funny or just more pliable in their thinking?
Sheila Robertson: We speak to their objective. I ask what they want from this. Sometimes it’s ice-breaking. Sometimes it’s team-building. Sometimes it’s thinking outside the box. Everything we do has a fun element … but every single activity also has a teaching point. It’s not designed to teach people how to be funny. It’s to teach people how to listen—how to be present, accept somebody’s idea, work together, maybe not look at the world from a perfectionist standpoint. 

Fiore: So, improv isn’t just about comedy?
Sarah Rogers: When we’re funny on stage, it’s because we’re good at those skills, not because we step on stage and say, ‘I have a zinger.’ Similarly, people who come to our workshops end up having fun and finding that they’re funny because humor is just born of people collaborating in that way.

Fiore: Your motto of approaching improv with a “Yes, and…” attitude makes sense. What does “Yes, and…” look like in life off stage?
Vanessa Tortolano: It’s helped me as a mom. I used to think ‘This is how it’s going to be. You’re going to be that kind of child, and this is how we’re going to structure our day.’ Now I have more humor in my parenting because I ‘Yes, and…’ which says, ‘OK, let’s do whatever wacky thing is happening here.’
Robertson: It also gives you the opportunity to play. Maybe I’m trying to get the dishes done. I’ve got to get out the door in a half hour. I have a lot to do, and my son’s like, ‘I wanna do a dance party.’ Yeeeee-es! We’re going to do that. Because when you’re 16, you’re not going to ask me to have a dance party in our living room. That moment’s precious. If you’re caught in the dishes, you lose it. 

Fiore: From all you’ve said about staying in and being open to the moment, there seems to be an almost Buddhist quality to improv, a life philosophy of sorts. Would you agree?
Linda Hedenband: I always call improv ‘meditation for people who can’t sit still.’ Now we’re using it on a more personal level and developing a workshop called ‘Yes, and…Improvising Life.’ It’s going to be for people in the community, blending positive 
psychology and improv. 

Fiore: How is positive psychology part of improv?
Hedenband: That’s something I’m bringing from the outside, because I work on the university level teaching courses such as that. I think positive psychology really fits with “Yes, and…” I lost both my parents after I came into improv, and had some really traumatic things happen in my life. Being able to say, ‘My mom died, yes, and…I’m going to honor her in this way,’ gave me power. 

Fiore: How do you take this idea into parenting?
Salas: I think about situations of defiant behavior, rude behavior, mean behavior. I’m able to take it as ‘this is what happened in the moment.’ I don’t think my 4-year-old is an awful, rude human being, so I don’t get angry. I don’t get mean. I don’t get overwhelmed. It’s just oh, in this moment, you had really rude behavior.
Robertson: It’s funny, we’re talking about being moms [doing] improv, but when I do improv, that’s the least mom I am. That’s my time, my release valve where I remember who I am. When you get caught up in baby world or little-kid world, it’s hard to remember, ‘Oh, yeah, I’m fun, and I’m a fox,’ and all that. I’m the youngest of six, and my mom was on the same bowling league for 30 years. Wednesday night was the holy day of obligation when she went out, had some brandy, and had a good time. I call improv my bowling night. It helps me not be resentful. 
Salas: I always tell women that improv is the best hobby because there’s no rehearsal, no lines to memorize, and it all happens after your kids go to bed. You’re not giving up time with them, and it’s not another thing on your mind. Literally, you put the kids to bed, show up and make it up on the spot.

Fiore: Would you say it’s childlike?
Rogers: Yes. You get over looking silly or stupid. Someone might say, ‘OK, you’re Thomas Edison!’ and you’re like, ‘Wow. I have nothing.’ But you just go straight into it. That’s very childlike. I tried learning to ski at 28, and it was a fiasco because I was afraid and tense. But there were all these 3-year-olds just going down the hill. I hated them! Improv gives you that spirit, that fearlessness that you’re unable to fall. 

Fiore: Is it an adrenaline high?
Everyone: Yes.
Hedenband: There’s a flip side, though. Sometimes on stage there are moments of perfect peace, when you look across at the other person you’re improvising with and you’re connecting. You’re so in the moment that it’s like all life stops. You’re totally calm, and you completely trust the person across from you.

Fiore: My mind is most apt to be childlike when I’m with my child. But it’s hard to get back there later. How do you do it?
Salas: Improv is a form that disappears as soon as you’ve moved on … It’s the group who’s there that night, the audience. We get that collective experience together, and it’ll never happen again.

Fiore: It’s your charcoal drawing on the sidewalk. 
Hedenband: Exactly! It’s a different kind of art form. I like to paint, but painting is a sole activity. This kind of art form is created by a group of people, by an audience, in a moment, with nothing but the word banana. It’s painted right there, and sometimes it’s a masterpiece.

Fiore: It sounds like trained spontaneity, an oxymoron. 
Salas: Yeah, but it’s really about the tools [not a methodology].
Rogers: I would argue, if you want to use a Buddhist lens, that improv is not about giving you things but taking things away—your inhibition, your fear, your ego, your personal agenda. At its core, it’s about openness. We don’t give you anything, but we help you uncover what’s there. 

The next day, I found myself confronted with a sick son, no childcare, a broken touchpad on my laptop, a lost wireless mouse, and a fast-approaching deadline. So what did I do? I said, ‘Yes, and…’ 
Yes, I can nap in the sun with my sweet feverish child, and then pull a couple all-nighters like the little fox I once knew I was. 
Thank you, ladies, for the Zen. 


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