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Ep. 42 - Not Quite Strangers: Create New Choices In Life Through Improv

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Not Quite Strangers: Create New Choices In Life Through Improv

Welcome everybody to another episode of Not Quite Strangers. My name is Valerie Hope. I am your host and as you know, this show is all about bringing two people together who have never met or hardly know each other, and have a meaningful conversation with the intent of inspiring curiosity, building connection between people, and I'm out to disrupt the way strangers interact and the way strangers connect.

Today is no different. I have these two amazing people. I can't believe they said yes to this, by the way, because I'm also a relative stranger to both of them. I think that's what makes this even more fun. My guest is Izzy Gesell. Izzy and I go way back to October, perhaps. The way Izzy and I know each other is because I reached out to him on LinkedIn after watching a LinkedIn course or some live stream.

We're talking about humor and business and it recommended a course that you do. I was like, “I'm not going to take another course. I'm going to reach out to the source.” I sent you a LinkedIn message saying, “I'd like to know more about what you do and how you do it.” We had this half-an-hour or maybe an hour-long conversation. I said, “Do you want to be on my podcast?” You were like, “Yay.”

Izzy, I don't know if you know this, but at the time I invited you, I didn't know who I wanted to have on the podcast with you. I was like, “I know this is a great conversation to have with somebody. I'll mull over who might that person be,” then fast forward to December, and a couple of months later, I was invited to be a part of a storytelling showcase here in Dallas, Texas, and ended up going to the storytelling showcase practice, like a little rehearsal that we had.

Vanessa, you turned to me and you're like, “We've met.” We took a Zoom improv class at the beginning of 2020 or spring of 2020, and I didn't remember it was you. I'm so grateful that you said something and then we started chit-chatting there in the little moments that we had. I was like, “Vanessa, you need to be on my show. I need you to meet Izzy.” You said, “Yes.” Anyway, with that huge long introduction, I want to say how grateful I am that the two of you said yes to be on the show. I now want to know why you said yes.

Being on LinkedIn, having my own business, your own business, getting to talk, and I like talking to people and meeting people but the idea is to talk to new people and to find kindred spirits and to be invited. Plus, as a kid, you want to be invited to the party. It's all different kinds of levels of psychological need. One of the things about improv is you sort of go yes most of the time, then you deal with this, “What did I get myself into?” I could deal with it.

This was one of those moments to get stage time and the opportunity to say yes, as you would an improv. Have you had any of those, “Why did I say yes” yet?

With you? No. Not yet. We have 50 minutes so there's time.

There's time. Vanessa, why did you say yes?

I took an improv class with you during a lockdown time frame and we became friends on Facebook. I became a fan of you. I was watching some of the stuff that you were putting together. I think you had, I can't remember the name of it, but it was some sort of presentation, I think it was at a church. You shared the recording of it. I thought it was cool and you talked about your experience growing up I think in the military family and all that stuff. I love that. I liked this idea. When you asked me to join us, I was like, “Totally. That's so cool. It sounds rad.”

You're my fan. That's awesome. Thank you so much. I do appreciate that. In the spirit of transparency at this moment, I had a podcast prior called Time to Come Alive, where I would do one-on-one interviews with people who were doing wonderful, inspiring things in their lives. It was great and then I got bored.

I was like, “I'm done, 100 episodes, that's enough.” I shared with you earlier that the thing that inspired me to do this was out of a conversation where it seemed like people may not be as comfortable connecting with strangers in a meaningful way. I thought, how can I bring that to light? This is what was born out of it.

Now it's been a year and I get restless. I'm like, “I don't know what I want to do now. Do I want to do it again? Do I want to keep doing it?” I meet cool people like the two of you and I'm like, “Of course, I got to keep doing it because there are more people to meet.” I'm also secretly hoping that out of this conversation, I'm so glad that you guys are both improvisation masters and open to it because I think I want to learn some things for myself to change things up a little bit.

What do you change up? There are probably some people tuning in to this and I've shared with people that we were going to have a conversation about improv and they're like, “Improv, like improving things?” Someone might need a definition before we go any deeper. Who would like to share what is improv and why does it matter?

It's a style of comedy that's usually live, but sometimes can be recorded and it's all made up on the spot based on prompts. Sometimes no prompts, but usually based on prompts. Sometimes it can be short little games, and sometimes it can be long things but if you've seen Whose Line Is It Anyway, that's improv and that's short form.

Not Quite Strangers | Izzy Gesell and Vanessa Kenney | Improv
Improv: Improv is a style of comedy that's usually live but can sometimes be recorded. It's all made up on the spot based on prompts.

What would you add Izzy?

The reason that it's so popular now is that what's happening is that people realize that the training that improvisers go through is relevant to non-theatrical lives. My work is in a field that I and other people call applied improv. The idea is that the skills that make improv people successful are relevant to us all. Essentially, it boils down to three things.

Improvisers learn to stay in the moment because what's past is past, and the future is unknown. Now is the only time we have. Improvisers understand the difference between acknowledgment and agreement, which is what yes and is. I may not agree with what you say, but I will listen to what you say and acknowledge that I heard you. Even if we disagree, I'll say, you think that, and I think differently, let's examine the differences.

The third aspect of this is that improvisers learn to trust the process. They suspend judgment about whether things are good or bad at the moment, “This is good. I sucked, a person's funnier than me. What am I going to think of? What's the best answer?” None of that. They act and people think improvisers think quicker than most other people.

It's not that they think quickly, it is that they act quickly because they don't have all that self-talk going, “What should I do?” “What's the best?” and so forth. It's the theatrical piece that's comedy-focused or entertainment-focused. You go back and you say, “How do those people learn to do that? I'm going to apply that to my life.” There's improv and then there's applied improv.

Not Quite Strangers | Izzy Gesell and Vanessa Kenney | Improv
Improv: People think improvisers think quicker than most other people. It's not that they think quickly; it's that they act quickly because they don't have all that self-talk going on.

I think the thing that got “Ding-ding” for me in what you shared was this idea of the difference between acknowledgment and agreement. I am taking it. The two of you have inspired me to continue to explore improv even further. I signed up for a seven-week intro to improv here in Dallas and it's live, we meet in person. I have done week two at this point. It's two sessions so far.

I enjoyed it, but I realized how judgmental I am about whether the thing is going the way that it could go like, “I shouldn't have said that. I should have said this or not. Next time, I'm going to say that.” There's all this calculation that's happening in my mind constantly. Although we did a couple of games in our session yesterday in our workshop where we had to acknowledge that was happening.

Same thing, acknowledgment and agreement. I could acknowledge that my brain wants to solve this puzzle before it's my turn. I could then agree to improvise at the moment like I want to say purple, then my turn comes and I'm like, “Mule.” It was nice to be able to suspend, like acknowledge that the thought was there, but not necessarily have to act in agreement with it. I can still do whatever it was called for. I'm curious about your experiences. How does improv grow you or how has it impacted you?

They say people teach what they need to learn. I'm a cynical New York guy, sarcastic, and judgmental. When I started taking improv, I was in groups and I used to do standup comedy also. What I began to see, and I think this is what brought me to the work I do now, which is facilitating using applied improv. I realized that I was able to learn things about myself because the games themselves have no real-world consequence, but the behavior that we use in the games is our true self.

They say people teach what they need to learn.

That to me said, “Pay attention.” The other side of that is the more you practice improv and people practice not to know the game ends, but to learn the process, you see that it's always about choice. That's a big lesson for me. Life is always about choice and you always have to wait. I think it's Victor Frankl's work, Man's Search for Meaning. It's always about choice. At the bottom line, all human beings have a choice. They may not be easy choices but improv is always about choice. In fact, there's a game called New Choice.

What is that?

You have a scene and you're playing something and a third person goes new choice and as soon as you say something they go new choice, and you have to have a different answer. You say you have a job interview and one person says, “Why do you want this job?” “Because I need the money.” Why do you want the job, Vanessa?

Because I bought a kangaroo. It's too expensive.

New choice.

Because my wife left me.

New choice.

Because I like working and it's all I want to do with my life. I don't want to relax.

I want a new choice now too. How do we play this now?

I could have the two of you play. Sometimes it's also called Ding because sometimes people use a bell, but I'll do New Choice. Why don't you two have a conversation and I'll make a new choice.

Vanessa, you kick us off.

I was watching this thriller series.

New choice.

I was watching a jamboree session and they were all bears playing banjos at the same time.

New choice.

They were all tiny men dancing on top of large men, tiny and the men are large, like giants.

This is something you watched on TV?

New choice.

This was something that you saw at the park?

New choice.

This is something that they taught you in school?

Yes. You watch Alice in Wonderland and you see the little potions for getting huge or getting tiny. They're real.

New choice.

They're not real at all. I'm lying and I lie a lot. I'm sorry.

This is fun. I'm going to add this to my repertoire. New choice. It's one thing we've staged that there are some basic premises and rules that you apply. How do you use something like this in your real life? When you're walking around the street and talking, obviously, Vanessa, you do not see little men dancing on top of big men, I imagine.

I have an answer or a response to that. I think you touched upon it. The biggest gift of improv is asking the question, what if? What if I don't control this? What if I say the wrong thing and see what happens? What if I'm not perfect? What if I go with it? What if I let the other person lead? What if we try something different this time? If you follow what if, you can follow new things.

The biggest gift of improv is asking the question, "What if?"

It can be helpful. I personally think even in a work environment where it's so clear who are the people who are so rigid in the way that they think about things and the way that they solve things versus people who are willing to ask what if instead of immediately going, “I don't know how that works. I can't visualize it, so no.”

Vanessa, you were talking about what this allows you to do is to let go of the need to know the outcome. The what-ifs are different possibilities, but they also bring you the right present. You have no idea where this conversation is going to go.

New choice.

You heard this lesson from your mother many years ago and you understand that that's the way life should be.

New Choice.

The Bible says that improv was the 11th commandment, but nobody wanted it to place so they went to the 10th.

Nicely done, Izzy. I love this premise of what if this idea of what if because I do struggle with taking over and controlling some things. I mean, this is my show. I do feel a sense of responsibility that I need to manage things in a way that is comfortable for the guest and predictable for the listener. I'm feeling open this time of my life where I'm like, I'm pretty adaptable and I want to stretch myself even further.

I would love for the two of you to come up with some what-ifs about our lives. It doesn't have to be about the show and this has to be about me, but I'm curious about what are some of the what-ifs that are wondering that are rumbling around in your minds around your life, around what you see in society around this moment.

What if all the people who have different political parties got together and played improv games?

What comes up for me here is what if they realize that they're not that different at all. The political party piece is like a shell that covers. People have meaningful conversations about what's important to them and what's important for the communities they represent or live in. I would love that. I think that's your next LinkedIn course, Izzy. What's another what-if?

What if metrics weren't the leading thing for how you value an employee or how you value a person?

What would you say to that, Izzy? I'm not sure how to play this. Are we playing it? Are we talking about it? Do we ask the question?

This is the part known as the debriefing. The explanation of the relevance of the game. I think what Vanessa was referring to, what I got from it was that what-if is the process you use to let go of whether things are good or bad. It's the make-believe aspect of it because it's all make-believe. Within boundaries, I mean, improv has boundaries.

The suggestion, so New Choice, the boundary is you're going to say something and somebody else is going to go New Choice. You have no control over that but once you consent, that's the other side, there are boundaries and there's consent. Once you're playing, you consent to that because that's the game.

That builds a rapport where we're now in a consenting relationship. We have boundaries and you were talking about dating. Dating is very relevant to people who see boundaries as restrictions. The boundaries and improv are where the creativity comes from. If you have to make a new choice, that's the boundary, then that's where the creativity comes from.

Boundaries create an agreement.

Yes, rivers can't flow without boundaries, otherwise they'd be all over the place. It's the boundaries that give you direction.

Now I'm going to pause and I'm going to ask a mystery question. This is an opportunity. I've asked both of my guests to identify a couple of questions that they would want to ask at any point in time during our conversation. It is an opportunity for me to stretch myself, reroute the conversation if need be, but then also put some of the responsibility on you all to be as curious as I am about you or about life. Who would like to introduce a question?

I'll go. When was a time that you helped someone grow, but it was in a way that’s unexpected?

I literally had a conversation about this with somebody. I'm a leadership coach and I had a client who was dealing with some things around inequity in the workplace. My instinct is to find a better way. There's something that's inequitable and there was a reaction to that. I want to maintain the confidentiality of the conversation. I'm being purposely vague about the details. I'm not trying to be sketchy, I want to respect that individual.

It was interesting because what came up for me was that I want to fix it, but I want to fix it in a way that feels good and not have to deal with the messiness and the conflict that might come with it, so to speak. What was interesting was staying present in the conversation, I started to realize that her values were very clear to her, but because they were not necessarily the same things that I value at the same level perhaps, I had a judgment about the fact that she valued fairness versus me valuing relatedness, for example. Let's put it that way.

I was like, “There's got to be a better way. If you had this conversation,” perhaps right in my head. The expected learning was for me actually, but she benefited too because we were able to talk about what was happening at the moment, what was the reaction, and the emotion that was behind it, then I provided a framework around neuroscience for the second session where we were able to take all of those messy, uncomfortable feelings and reactions and see our brain is acting up like this. How is the other person's brain acting up?

If you were to make these choices, what impact would it have on your brain? What impact would it have on their brain? Like that, so it grounded the conversation. After that, we were able to come up with something creative. For her, she was able to fulfill the goal of having a more equitable space to work in because we were able to come up with a strategy that connected to her value of fairness. For me, I realized that even in moments where I'm challenged as a coach, my process is if I can be in the moment, acknowledge that this hurt, find a way to ground it in to connect with the person, and then we can be more creative on the other side.

I came up with a way to triage for myself. It was a big a-ha moment and I shared it with her in one of our last sessions. I'm like, “Thank you so much for teaching me.” It was huge. I'm going to ask this question later on, but I noticed that when we talk about anything around diversity, equity, and inclusion these days, it's tense, it's tight, it's very heady.

There are all these facts and figures and numbers and social justice, and we don't engage the heart so much. I saw myself go there even in that one-on-one situation where I was like, “I need to acknowledge the emotion that's happening right now,” then allow that emotion to guide us to the brain, and then the brain to guide us to something creative.

Great story, thank you. Do you still want to hear mine? It's exactly the same. There's a game called One Word at a Time Story where people make up a story in sequence one word at a time. It'd be fun to play here. I was running a workshop and there was a group of five people at a table and at each table, they were telling the same story.

In the debrief, I would ask the people, what was your response? What'd you learn about yourself? A woman raised her hand and said, “I wasn't good for my team.” “Why not?” “I took too long to come up with my word.” “I purposely said there is no time limit on this game. You don't have to come up fast.” She said, “I heard you, but I didn't believe you,” because nothing in my life has a timeframe to it, and then this is the moment. I could see the light bulb go up in her head when she said, “Now I realize why my direct reports are so nervous when I come into the office.”

She realized she carries a sense of urgency with her when it's not necessary. She was able to see and we had a great discussion about who we are when we show up impacts other people. That's the power of this work, I think, is that I don't have to ask questions. People make their own insights if they're willing to do it.


Who we are and when we show up impact other people.

Connection. Vanessa, you don't get away with asking it. You can do both.

I have one on the top of my head. As you all were sharing, I was thinking about it. I studied music and I studied voice and during my college time, I had a student for my voice pedagogy class. She was not a trained musician or anything. She was someone I found off of Craigslist who would come in and I'd be heavily documenting and being graded on how pedagogical my approach was with teaching voice.

A lot of the exercises that I was doing with her were very physical and about breathing. A lot of it is about breath and about taking up space like expanding so that you're taking in more breath because breath to the vocal cords is what creates voice. If your breath isn't in check, then that's the number one thing that's going to help with singing.

She did improve and it was cool to see her voice improve, but she said something else at the end that I didn't expect, which was that she told me that taking the lessons with me made her realize how much in her life since having moved to Boston because that's where we were at the time, she had made herself small and didn't want to take up space, so much so that when she would come into these lessons with me week after week, and I constantly told her to take up space, she realized that she was finally allowing herself to take up more space in her everyday life now. I thought that was so cool.

I can imagine that in some of these experiences, I take for granted how much impact we make on people. I don't know if you guys are the same, but it doesn't have to be anything huge sometimes. It so happened that we were in the space of the expert in those situations, the educator. I can imagine that someone observing you, maybe somebody tuning in right now could have a big insight for themselves. I don't take for granted that people are growing and learning around me if I allow myself to follow my heart and follow my instinct at that moment. It doesn't have to be crafted for it to be effective.

It's about who you are and how you show up. That's a thread through all of our stories.

Immediately, it makes me think of something. It's a saying that I can't remember exactly, but basically, it's the ideology that you do not have to create some sort of big thing or change the world in this revolutionary way to make a difference. When I hear that and think about that, I do truly think that even something as small as a personal revolution, one of truly owning yourself and being yourself and loving yourself in your life can be enough to help people around you. I do think that that is something that we tend to undervalue about ourselves.

I have all the time. I'm trying. This is for me. I can do this for me. I said recently to someone we were all born with different-sized feet, and some shoes are comfortable for you. Walk your walk, walking the shoes that are made for you that make you feel good, that make you look good, that make you walk the way you want to walk.

It would be so not only dull but completely ineffective living if all of us wore the same type of shoes, although all of us were different sizes. Can you imagine someone wearing high heels when they have flat arches or somebody having to stuff their feet because they're a size seven, but they're wearing size 12 shoes? How ridiculous that is. What if? Izzy, do you have a question?

Yes, Vanessa, tell me something about you that most people don't know.

I feel like I'm such an open book. What do most people not know? That's a hard one. I think something that surprises people is learning about my anxieties or insecurities and I only learned this recently. I don't view myself as a bombastic or forward personality but apparently, sometimes I come off that way. Someone bold and confident.

It can be surprising to people to learn that I have my own fears and anxieties that are very prevalent and that I have to work through them all the time. Knowing that maybe I'm worried about the quality of my performances, or my art, or my work, or knowing that I struggle with feeling disappointed with myself sometimes, or knowing that I'm afraid of the things that I can't control can be surprising for people to learn sometimes.

May I answer that question too? Some of it harkens back to some of the things that you shared, Vanessa, but I think for me I work in the corporate world. Often I work with people from all levels of the organization and have been doing it for a long time. I second guess myself every time I have to present something that is strictly just, this is Valerie's heart, this is my emotion. This is my spiritual belief, not because it's couching any sort of religious subtext.

For example, we were talking about diversity, equity, and inclusion is the work I've been doing more and more often. I struggled when I was requested a few times, a few years back to come and do workshops or something like that on this topic because I don't think that dealing with history and facts and figures is going to cut it for me.

One, I'm not good at retaining that information. Two, I don't think it makes any significant change in people's hearts. How do I get the two to match up? I second-guess myself so many times on teaching facts, figures, history, the law, and concepts, versus connecting with people in meaningful ways. It's a battle that I struggle with pretty much in every single conversation I've had around that.

Is it good enough to connect with people? It's usually the question. Is that enough? Do people care about that enough? Is that as easy as it sounds? Is it as impactful as I think it is like that? I think people would be surprised because I devote a lot of my time and energy doing that, and it would be like, “She would never question it.” I'm like, “I question it all the time.”

Can I ask a clarifying question on that? Is it this idea of, can I see this thing as valuable if it's not quantifiable?

Kind of. I don't know necessarily if it needs to be quantified per se. I don't even know how to express it but I think for me, I use empirical evidence all the time. I'm going to label it. Most of it is, “This is my experience in living life, what I know best, what I've seen other people do that seem to work.” That's the level of reality that I feel most comfortable working with.

What I have trained myself to do when I have these moments of “Ahh.” Is not so much that I need to give a percentage of people who think X, Y, Z, but I like, “How many of you feel this way? If you don't, cool. If you do, check it.” It doesn't have to be quantifiable per se, but I have to figure out if it is relevant. Maybe that's what I struggle with. Is this relevant? Especially if the people that I'm working with or talking to want more facts and more justification for why. I don't think that's important. I don't know if that landed, but that's what came to mind when you were asking that question.

If I'm going to bring this to the improv world, what I heard you saying was that you're trying to predict the end of the story, instead of telling the story. Your questions are from Esther Perel. It's all about relationships and you know in relationships, what you say gets translated to the person's love language. It's very much in the work that I do and that you do and it is very much about you having a process, you having a plan and you making an offer.

The offer is you and the context in which you put it. If people need more, then it's their choice to ask for more, and not everybody is going to get it. That's another way that improv has helped me where I've been able to let go of trying to please everybody because so far it has not worked. The act alone has turned people off.

I do think that a little bit has to do with how I've learned to be more and more open. I think as I've been more open, people are usually more open to receiving what I have to offer. Even the children in my life, I don't have any kids, but I have nine nieces and nephews and I underestimate how much they care about someone asking them about their life and their hobbies and being silly with them. Although I don't see them very often. I don't buy them a bunch of gifts. That's not my style. I get something like, “Maybe I needed to buy something instead.”I'm like, “No. Actually, they enjoyed it and they talked about it.”

You're so human. Can I ask Vanessa a question? I'm curious as to how improv and the work that you do, the performances, what have you learned about your vulnerability? I mean, because you have to be vulnerable. I think what brought to mind was, Valerie, what you were discussing was about the vulnerability of who shows up. I'm curious, Vanessa, about how this vulnerability recognition evolved for you through the work that you do, improv, and the others.

First off, I want to say I feel like I'm a pretty odd duck when it comes to what drew me to improv and my experience with it. In a lot of ways, I feel like improv is coming home and it's not necessarily that thing that I'm doing to grow or expand myself. It's the thing that I do that nourishes me and it's always felt that way.

It's funny. I'm trying to think when I want to start if I go on the timeline. When myself and my siblings were kids, we used to essentially make up improv games. Do improv with each other as kids. That was the game that we would play. We're all very neurodiverse kids who came up with interesting games to play, like one person sits in a chair and we do absurdist humor until the other person laughs and see how long you can hold out or create odd scenarios and build out a scene and things like that.

It was very natural to me. We were all such huge fans of Whose Line Is It Anyway, ever since I was little, even now. When I got into school for the first time in college, I didn't do theater or any of that during grade school because I was homeschooled for a long time, and then I was in a tiny private school. When I went to college and I was finally taking theater classes, I went into it with this idea and this hunger for liberation. I wanted that so much. I was a very pent-up and repressed person.

My first experience in person with improv was noncomedic acting improv. I remembered class after class, it was like doors and windows opening up for me. I felt so liberated. It was so great. I remember it was a lot of it for me. I guess I was ready to name the things that I was afraid of, to jump in and to own who I was in those moments, to allow myself to push past boundaries. I think that over time getting older, that's become harder. I do have to push myself still to go as far as I had initially. I don't know. Does that answer your question?

Over time, getting older has become harder.

Yes. The story is clear. Improv fortified you to the point of transforming your vulnerability. Like you said, you found it and it freed you from that. That was a very clear answer. Thank you.

I guess one thing to add on top of that too, I feel like it unlocks my idea-maker inside. Even when I'm away from improv, if I'm currently engaged in it on like a regular basis, my ability to come up with new ideas is expounded. I don't have a way to quantify this, but my impression of the people that I've talked about is that we take for granted how much of life is improvisational.

It's constantly improvisational. You don't have to take a course to do it. I hope so.

Driving is improvisational. If you pass somebody, you're affecting hundreds, if not thousands of people in the lanes behind you.

Absolutely. Our interaction is a cash register, our interaction with the children in our lives. It's constant. You're responding to whatever stimulus. I remember one day going to a grocery store and I can't remember what prompted me to start thinking this way, but you know the conversations are usually pretty predictable. It's like, “Hi, how was your day? Welcome to whatever store,” back and forth, then how much you pay and you're off.

I remember that I walked up, it was my turn and the cashier asked, “Welcome. How are you doing today?” I was like, “My feet are killing me. I have these new boots and they're cute, but they're painful.” We had this great laugh and I think for the first time in a while, I realized how simple it was. It was like a minute or three-minute exchange, paid for my stuff and I left.

I'm like, “I need to do this more often,” because it breaks things up for me and the other person. I'll share one last example. I remember this guy I thought was cute. Also, a cash register and he said the same thing, “How are you? How's your day?” I'm like, “It's going pretty well. How's your day?” He goes, “Anytime a hot chick comes through my line, I have a good day,” or something like that.

The first thought I had was like, “All right. I'm what? I'm like 15? Hot chick? Who talks like that to a grown woman?” Judgment. I was like, “That was a compliment.” I was like, “Wait, am I the hot chick?” It took me a moment to give that up and be with this. It was so great. We went out a couple of times, but it was wonderful. I would have shut it down had I not decided, I'm going to say yes in this moment and be with whatever he said. It was fascinating.

Izzy, I have a question for you. Vanessa alluded to this, we're talking about as you get older, we have an instinct to want to maybe have a little bit more control or exert a little bit more control over things. I'm curious for you, Izzy, with your contemporaries. What are you like in a group or with your peers, of your generation? Are you hanging out with other people who are in improv? What are you noticing as you grow older as well? How flexible you are and how much commitment do you make to being open?

One of the things about Zoom is that I get to play with improv people around the world a couple of times a week in my own workshops. They are very age-diverse. What I find is that in different groups, like with different groups of friends, you have different topics to talk about. For people, I would talk to people in their 70s and 80s to find out what's the secret. What they say is to have an interest in something, have a spiritual connection to something, and have a purpose and play.

I think that I've been fortunate that the work that I do is not sequential. It's not like moving through life and the conveyor belt is, “I see the end of the tunnel of love coming up.” It's like we're going in a circle. I keep going around. “This is good.” The biggest change is because I've been a facilitator for so long and I've also started as a special ed teacher. I did stand-up comedy, improv, and speaking. I have been around a lot of people for a long time of different ages. It doesn't come up very much except that physically I noticed some differences. That's true of people in their 40s and 30s also.

Very true. I want to shift a bit of our conversation now because we're coming toward the end of our time together. The end of the conveyor belt is near. I'm curious about what this experience has been like for the two of you. The conversation we've had so far, reflections on our last 45 or so minutes together.

It's nice jumping in and immediately talking about things on a deeper level. It's my preference in terms of hanging out with people.

I would go out on another date. I think as you mentioned, I would like to get to know Vanessa a little bit more and we can certainly stay offline, connect offline. This is good. My partner, who's an artist, had said, “What are you going to talk about?” “I don't know.” “Who are you talking to?” “I don't know.” We watched a couple of your things. She says, “What are you going to bring?” Because the ones that we saw. I said, “I don't know.” “Actually, I do know, Slinky.”

Now that you brought it up, you got to tell us why Slinky.

It's play. It's a toy. It works for a lot of things. This is great. It's an example of even through Zoom, that connective energy can happen. It was good. Time went fast.

I know, same. Went by so fast.

That's because you guys brought it. You brought some good stuff. What are you taking away from this conversation? Insights, a-has, questions, anything. What are you taking away from this?

I think it's easy to get stuck in a rut of being hard on yourself. Just a reminder to myself to not be that way, particularly the the time that we shared of realizing how maybe something little we said had a good impact on someone else to remember those things. Celebrate the little things too.

Not Quite Strangers | Izzy Gesell and Vanessa Kenney | Improv
Improv: It's easy to get stuck in the rut of being really hard on yourself.

I had this feeling that there's a line of dialogue or a process, I think it's called unhurried conversations, where the people get together without a topic for a certain amount of time, and nobody has to say anything, but people say whatever they want, they don't have to stick to a topic or something. I have that feeling here in that. The reminder for me is that not having an agenda is the best agenda.

Not having an agenda is the best agenda. I live with that. I roll that way a lot. In my head, I might have a loose agenda, but I don't generally write it.

I mean, we have time boundaries. We have other boundaries, but without having the agenda, I thought your structure, Valerie, the way you put it is really, it's a nice container

Thank you guys for playing in the container. I have one last game. It's not necessarily an improv game per se in the classical sense, but I did order recently and I got this week a set of cards called The Shift Deck. Have you heard of this The Shift Deck? From Conscious Leadership. I got them and I feel like you guys are the perfect people to play this with because I've not used them yet.

I have here a set of cards. They're little slivers of paper, basically, or cards. I fanned them out and what I'd like to do is run my fingers across and have one of you, we'll start with Vanessa, have you say when, and I'll stop. That's your card and whatever it says on the card you will do. For example, one of the cards says, “Speak from the opposite point of view for one minute,” for example. That's one of the cards in here. to give you a sense of what that is. Tell me when to stop and that'll be your card. This one says, “Make a sound that fully expresses how you're feeling right now for fifteen seconds. No words.”

“Blub, blub, blub.” I imagined bubbles.

Izzy, It's up to you. Your turn. Tell me when.


Argue for why you can't have what you want for two minutes. I'll keep time. Let's do one minute for the sake of it. For one minute, I want you to argue about why you can't have what you want. Go.

People don't understand me. They keep putting these boundaries and assuming that I want things because I'm selfish, but I want things so that if I'm happy, I impact a lot of people and I want to spread the joy. Just because I have unusual tastes doesn't mean that I don't have relevance to a lot of other people. I know that a lot of people come from the position of having to suffer and their lives are bad and painful.

I understand the physical difficulties of eating candy all the time or ice cream as a main course, but it's just I am a connected hedonist in terms of wanting my pleasure to go everywhere. There's a saying that the happier the person in your life that you're connected to, the happier you are. I'm going to reverse that. The happier I am, the happier everyone else will be. I don't understand why that argument.

Well done. We got bubbles and we got hedonists. I'm going to pick one for fun. In the last moments that we have. I'm going to run my thing. You guys are going to choose for me. I'll stop whenever you say when. One of you tell me when to stop. In 30 seconds while ranting about your issue, move your legs in a way they've never moved before.

I can't believe that today of all days, I decided to do this improvisational thing. I'm trying so many things right now that I feel a little crazy. I've been getting hot today. I can't believe that you guys have been so well to me and now everybody thinks I'm crazy and they'll probably stop watching this show by the time this thing comes out because they're like, “Who is the crazy lady moving her legs so nutty?” Then all these changes that Valerie's making on this podcast, like pick something and stick with it.

This has been fantastic. Thank you so much for saying yes and bringing yourselves, actually coming to play literally and figuratively. We will stay connected and I'll make sure that I send you guys your contact info if you don't think you already have it but that will be a good way. Also, Izzy and Vanessa if you're okay with it we'll put your contact information in there too or some social media handle perhaps or they could follow and find you because I have a feeling that you're going to get some fans after the conversation and what the things that you shared today.

Thank you so much for that um the rest of you thank you so much for tuning in once again to this episode of Not Quite Strangers. Please make sure that you rate us on any part of the podcast platform that you listen to us on. Thumbs up if you have a comment for Izzy or Vanessa. That always means so much for us. As Vanessa, we mentioned. What do people take away from this? What impact has it made? Let us know in the comments. Have a wonderful rest of the day, everybody. Vanessa and Izzy, you guys stick around.

Important Links

Strangers: Meet Izzy Gesell & Vanessa Kenney

From: New York/Massachusetts, USA & Texas, USA

Talk About: Create new choices in life through improvisation

Connect With:

Izzy Gesell

Vanessa Kenney

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