Since founding in 1989, Stevie Ray’s has helped people to improve their lives with the Skills for Life Project. We teach valuable communication skills that apply to real-world challenges; self-confidence, conflict resolution, communication skills, and teamwork.
The Skills for Life Project teaches:
- Communication skills, applicable for job interviews, communicating in difficult situations, and self-advocacy
- Interaction skills to develop positive relationships
- Youth development to improve outcomes in school and life
How can we do this? Because most people only know improvisation, or improv, through what they see on TV or at a comedy club, they think of it solely as a form or comedy. Actually, when improv was first being developed in the late 1930s, the techniques were developed to help people learn communication skills; the comedy side of improv came much later. The tenets and skills of improvisation are highly effective in teaching skills to improve anyone’s life.
Organizations that have benefited from the Skills for Life Project
Anodyne Artist Company • Arc Great Rivers • Bloomington Future Leaders • Boy Scouts of America • Dakota County Adult Foster Care • Dakota County Workforce Council • 4-H of Dakota County • Hennepin County Department of Human Services • HOPE Coalition • Jewish Family & Children’s Services • Little Brothers Friends of the Elderly • Minnetonka Community Education • Odyssey of the Mind • People Serving People • Spring Lake Park High School Learning Alternatives • Tubman Center • Upward Bound • Urban Leadership Academy • Women’s Advocates • WeMentor, Inc.
Stories from people we have served
We met Felicia at a workshop Stevie Ray was conducting for the Tubman Family Alliance. Felicia was in her forties, but her circumstances made her look older than her years. She and her two children were residents at the domestic abuse shelter, where Stevie had volunteered to teach communication skills. We had learned that domestic violence often involves the abuser removing all support for the victim by cutting them off from the outside world. As such, many of the women had no employment history or rental record, and also lacked the confidence and communication skills to get a job, apartment, or stand up to their abuser in court and fight for custody of their children.
Since we have always seen our improv classes primarily as a means to help people improve their lives, we thought teaching the woman at the shelter would be a good fit. Little did we know just how much impact the workshops would have. Simple games like Word Ball showed the women just how they were projecting doubt to others, and back onto themselves. The key concepts of improvisation—“yes, and…” and “Don’t negate” became tools for advocating for themselves.
When the women spoke about how difficult it was to get housing and work with prospective landlords (having no employment history, credit score, or rental record), they were surprised to discover that their improv teacher, Stevie Ray, was himself a landlord and had rented to tenants just like them for over twenty years. Here was a chance to get advice straight from the horse’s mouth. He told them that, while many landlords make decisions based on credit reports, the most powerful tool is the ability of the tenant to speak confidently and make a good impression. This can be hard enough for anyone, let alone someone who has been oppressed and abused for years.
We spent weeks working on powerful communication in difficult situations, and Felicia slowly realized that her life was now in her hands. That what happened to her and her children as they moved forward was up to her. As the final workshop began, Stevie asked the women if anything had occurred since our last meeting. Felicia stood up and yelled, “I got an apartment!” The room fell silent, but only for a moment, then all the women cheered. Stevie asked, “Felicia, how did you do it?” She said, “I did what you taught me. I looked that landlord straight in the eye and said, ‘I know I don’t have a good credit score, and I haven’t rented under my own name before, but I am telling you here and now that I will be the best tenant you ever had. I will take care of this apartment as if it is my own and I will break my back to pay you on time every month.’ And he said, ‘Okay!’”
The challenges Felicia would face weren’t over that day. She still had to fight for custody of her children, get them into a good school, and build a new life; but now she knew that all she needed was herself to do it.
Each year local counties offer day-long seminars for the un-employed to give them skills to get back into the workforce. We are often asked to teach workshops on job interview skills. Many people think a good resume is the most important factor in finding a job, but hiring managers will tell you the job is won or lost during the interview. This is where we met Victor. Victor had just retired from the military after years of service in the Air Force. Victor was an excellent airman, but his military training left him a bit stiff and rigid for a civilian interview. During the workshop, Victor learned subtle cues to guide his answers to questions, and how to let his “civilian personality” accompany his military discipline.
Victor said, “I was never taught any of this stuff. And I never knew it could be so much fun!” A few weeks later, we received an e-mail from Victor from his new work e-mail address. “I was really nervous coming into the interview, but I just remembered what you taught me. Thanks for teaching an old vet some new tricks.”
Most people assume our classes are for those who want to either perform for an audience or sharpen their professional skills. However, when we sit down with our students and really talk, we learn something different. After a class one night, the group was sitting at a local pub chatting about their lives. The instructor, Robert, decided to ask each student why they decided to try our classes. We always ask students this question on the first day of class, but we will often get a more honest answer after a few weeks, when everyone has gotten to know each other better. Each person gave variations on “I want to learn to be more comfortable while giving a presentation at work” or “I’ve always wanted to try this.” Then Joel spoke.
“I didn’t tell you guys this before, but I am going through a really nasty divorce. All the years I was married, my wife told me I was no good. After years of her putting me down, I pretty much felt worthless. One day I walked in on her with the guy she was cheating on me with, so that was pretty much it for the marriage. Now that the marriage is over I thought I should do something to get out of the house. I didn’t know if I would be any good at this, but my friends convinced me to try it. This is the first time I have been in an environment where everything I did and said was supported. I was basically told I was right, no matter what.”
As the class sat staring at their drinks, Joel said, “If I didn’t have this class to come to every week for these past few months. I don’t think I would have gotten through it.”
We met Janet while teaching workshops at a domestic abuse shelter in Anoka. She had three children and had just escaped her abusive husband a few weeks earlier. She was in her mid-thirties, with children aged two, three, and five. Janet smiled and shook my hand politely, but made little eye contact. She spoke so softly you hard to strain to hear her. She was participating in our workshops to learn self-confidence and communication skills. For the first few weeks, whenever we asked for feedback from the group, Janet sat silently.
An interesting exercise we often play is called “Colonial Friend.” It is challenging because it involves one person trying to explain how an automobile works to a friend. The catch is, the friend is from the Colonial era; with knowledge limited to the horse-and-buggy, oil lamp, or log cabin. You can imagine how difficult it would be to explain an engine to someone, now imagine working with someone who has only ever used a horse. The underlying technique of the game is to learn not to say “Yes, but…” or “No, that’s not how it works” to your Colonial friend. Saying “No” to yourself or your partner is known in the world of improv as “negating.” In improv, we are taught to use a “Yes, and…” response.
The exercise is meant to help communicate in difficult situations, but Janet actually discovered something about herself during the game. When we asked for feedback, Janet raised her hand and said, “Playing this game made me realize why my life has been controlled by other people. I’ve always allowed other people to knock me down, my parents, boyfriends, and my abusive husband. And that’s because I have always said ‘No’ to myself. I never allowed myself to know anything or be good at anything. This game also made me realize that I have been a ‘No’ mom. When my kids asked me ‘Momma, where do clouds come from?’ I said, ‘I don’t know’ because I never believed I had the right answer. I have been teaching my children to say ‘No’ to themselves, but that cycle has to stop with me. From now on, if my children ask me where clouds come from, I’ll say ‘God sneezed!’ Because my children need to have a momma who is strong and believes in herself, even if she isn’t always right.”
When Janet finished, no one spoke; they were thinking about all the times they had said ‘No’ to themselves, and how they were passing that along to their children.
We at Stevie Ray’s Improv Company have always been frustrated that improvisation has almost always been a young person’s game. Improv allows people to create and share their own stories. Who has better stories than older adults? In fact, we have always dreamed of forming a Senior Troupe. That’s why, way back in 1992, Stevie volunteered to teach members of Little Brothers Friends of the Elderly. Each week for two months, eight men and women aged 68-93 were bused to Stevie Ray’s Comedy Cabaret at our old Nicollet Avenue location. They played games to keep their minds sharp, and learned improv to share their life experiences.
During one particularly challenging exercise, one of the members said, “This is hard. Don’t you think it is better for the younger folks?” Stevie replied instantly, “Nonsense. Improv has no age limit.” He turned to the oldest member of the group and asked, “Gladys, care to join me in a little improv?” Gladys replied, “I’d be delighted!”
Gladys was 93 years old, and showed it proudly. A wrinkled face, raspy voice, stooped back, small whiskers on her chin, and her room key fastened to her sweater with a safety pin. She may have had more years than the rest of the group, but there was nothing old about Gladys’s spirit. With Gladys sitting next to him on stools, Stevie said to the group, “Tell me what situation Gladys and I are in.” Someone called out, Santa’s sleigh.” From that moment on, Stevie never got another word in.
“Alright Rudolph,” Gladys barked and she mimed holding the reindeer reigns, “you can stay in the sleigh for a while because you’re tired, but if you miss one chimney with those presents you’ll be a reindeer roast. And steer clear of that elf, Jimmy. He’s a dirty old elf, I tell ya.” This went on for at least ten minutes, with Gladys playing a cranky, old Santa while Stevie sat silently (and his friends will tell you, that doesn’t happen often). Gladys got to be a little kid playing pretend once again. She left the workshop a lot younger than when she arrived.