I'd been living in Los Angeles a short time when I found myself in an improv comedy class in Hollywood. A friend who was also an actress had encouraged, well, nagged me to enroll in what is now iO West, the West Coast offshoot of Chicago's ImprovOlympic. I was intimidated, but I also was lonely and looking for a challenge, so I went. That choice, to face my fears and connect with others, forever changed my life.
From the outside, the tiny theater space on a stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard looked industrial — not the beachy sort of place I, a newcomer to L.A., had imagined it would be. I was not impressed.
But then I walked in and saw the artistic director, my teacher with the beautiful name, James Grace. He welcomed me, and I could feel his eyes linger on me a bit longer than propriety dictated. I knew it because my eyes lingered on him too.
During those first few weeks in class, I learned the basic principle of improv that has come to define my love, and my life: "Yes, and."
"Yes, and" is the improv technique of building on and heightening a suggestion. It's never saying, "No, that won't work." You never stop the action. Instead you further it and make it better.
As our class met week after week, the other students and I began to do just that. We listened to one another, really listened. We cared about where the thoughts and words and ideas were coming from and got excited about where we could go from there. All with no props, no costumes, no scripts. Just ourselves.
We learned to trust one another.
After studying and performing in the classrooms upstairs, I would go downstairs to the performance stage and watch as it was transformed into a barbershop that clipped only nose hair, or Andre the Giant's bunk bed, or Bill Clinton's humidor cabinet — all with a couple of chairs and trusting performers. It made me laugh. And I started to feel and be less alone, so much so that I stayed on with the theater after completing my classes.
All the while, the techniques I learned were spilling over into my relationships with the friends I'd made there. And then, more important, with James, as we evolved from student and teacher to friends and, later, lovers.
Geographically speaking, James and I were star-crossed. I lived in a spacious and artsy two-bedroom apartment in North Hollywood, and he was living it up bachelor style in Venice. But we would come together in that rickety old building on Santa Monica Boulevard night after night. And the disconnectedness that had plagued me since I'd moved to this culture shock of a city from my tiny Boston suburb started to be replaced with love and friends and art and humor.
My relationship with James blossomed just as the cramped theater began to burst at the seams. The theater moved into its new space on Hollywood Boulevard, where it currently resides. And James and I were married.
Shortly after, our son, Liam, was born, and we moved to the Valley, or, as a dear friend and fellow iO improviser calls it, "the retirement community for iO West," because so many of the performers and friends live there. But that statement is only partly true: It's a community, yes, but not a retirement community. We are all still at it. Look onstage, turn on your TV, watch a movie: We are still listening, heightening, acting, writing and creating. And in our professional and personal lives, we are putting into practice the tools we learned from improv. We continue to support and nurture and build.
James and I have been "Yes, and-ing" our way through nearly 12 years of marriage. And we've mastered another great comedic lesson: the rule of threes. We welcomed two more children, our beautiful daughters, Oona and Marigold. Our Valley neighborhood and children's school is loaded with the children of our friends and fellow iO West performers. We are all L.A. transplants, and we share our special events and holidays together like family. We are all connected.
Our other love, our theater, where James remains artistic director, is booming. There are three performance spaces with shows every night, a bustling bar, an instruction center and annual improv and sketch festivals. Our kids, the second generation, work, study, perform and "Yes, and" at iOWest.
The beat goes on.
I was lucky the day I walked into iOWest. I gained not only a partner, husband and friend but also a community, as well as the support system and tools to help me walk through this life and our city with love in my heart.
Here's to taking chances, and saying, "Yes, and … "
McNabb is a film and television writer living in Los Angeles.
L.A. Affairs chronicles romance and relationships. Past columns and submission guidelines are at latimes.com/laaffairs. If you have comments to share or a story to tell, write us at email@example.com.