Minneapolis mom Keren Gudeman walked into her first improv class looking for a new hobby.
What she found instead was the inspiration for a new parenting philosophy — one that emphasizes what moms and dad aspire to be: flexible, positive and present in their kids’ lives.
Step aside, helicopter dad and tiger mom. Improv Parenting is taking center stage across the Twin Cities.
Gudeman, a former Carleton College instructor and women’s soccer coach, founded Improv Parenting — both the philosophy and the nonprofit — about two years ago.
Improv Parenting is a bit of a pushback to many of the driven, competitive, anxiety-ridden parenting styles batted around in pop culture today.
“It’s about being flexible and authentic to who you are,” said Gudeman, the mother of a 5-year-old and 3-year-old twins. “You just put yourself out there.”
She appreciates how scary that can be.
“I was not a theater kid,” Gudeman said. “Pushing though that, it became so playful.” And that playfulness, she discovered, was helping her on the home front.
“I was using all these improv skills in my parenting,” she said.
Improv, or unscripted comedy theater, emphasizes what’s called “yes and” — accepting the situation you are handed — good, bad or ugly — and building on that the best you can. If you can laugh together about it, even better.
“There are no mistakes. There are no scripts. Just be exactly who you are,” Gudeman said.
Her performance artists now work with parents and children in after-school programs, at Minneapolis and St. Paul public libraries programs and at special events including Holidazzle and American Swedish Institute shows. The troupe offers sessions for children, teens and entire families.
Gudeman, 42, is also writing a book to further explain her philosophy and help other parents bring improv to life in their families.
Laraine Baker-Pennington was one of Improv Parenting’s early followers. She’s now a teaching artist and co-producer at the nonprofit.
“I have a background in comedy writing and it really grabbed me,” said Baker-Pennington, mom to Harper, 7, and Edith, 5. “What an interesting way to approach life and parenthood.”
Baker-Pennington is impressed with the social-emotional skills that kids and parents learn doing improv.
“Improv is amazing for self esteem,” said Baker-Pennington, of St. Paul. “It lets you believe you can jump into any situation and make the best of it.
“There is eye contact. You are building connections. And just being silly with your kids is important. They see you as a person. The sooner kids realize you are a human, the easier it is to communicate.”
Even teens get into the act
The “yes and” mantra can guide moms and dads in the throes of parenting — and also children and teens learning how to navigate the world.
At a recent after-school event at Andersen United Community School in Minneapolis, Baker-Pennington led a maker’s space, another aspect of Improve Parenting. Kids and parents are given a theme, an array of art materials and room to experiment and explore creatively.
Down the hall, Gudeman and teaching artist Vann Daley, guided a group of middle schoolers through an hour of improv at a weekly after-school session. Gudeman, in jeans and an Improv Parenting T-shirt, teaches with her whole body. She’s in constant motion, gesturing, bouncing on the balls of her feet, making facial expressions and calling out encouragement. She and Daley laugh with children throughout the class, urging them to be bold as they try acting out new emotions and characters.
It’s middle school and the young actors start out apprehensive and self-conscious. With each activity, their voices grow stronger, their gestures more pronounced. The day’s theme is emotions; Gudeman explains that this exercise offers the youths an opportunity to discuss and portray emotions that society often tells them to stuff deep inside themselves. The kids act out a range of zany characters: angry cats, exhausted moms and smitten teachers.
During one scene, seventh-grader Ahrinah Cain convincingly dabs away a fake tear, her shoulders slumped as she acts out sadness. Seconds later, her head snaps up, her eyes narrow. She’s now acting out impatience and frustration, creating a whole background story as she goes.
When the scene is over, she’s smiling and giggling.
“I like all the games in here,” Cain, 12, said. “You get to act and be just goofy.”
Minneapolis mom Jeanette Ziegenfuss first heard about Improv Parenting at her son’s preschool. She’s attended an improv parenting session, as have her two sons, ages 8 and 5. Her youngest even enrolled in one of Improv Parenting’s summer camps.
Ziegenfuss said her sons are always excited to attend improv sessions.
“I am very much a believer of the ‘yes and’ mentality,” Ziegenfuss said. “I thought it was very smart to formally bring that into activities with kids and parents in family settings, as well as more structured camp and schools settings.
“It’s a refreshing and accessible way to think about parenting and interacting with your kids,” said Ziegenfuss, a health researcher.
“It doesn’t feel gimmicky. It has face validity. Make it fun. Make it playful. Keep the narrative going.”