Kate Defeo has taught theater to children and adults for over 20 years in New York City. She’s one of the founding members of Theater and Puppetry Arts (TAP Arts), which serves several local schools and has been performing long form musical improv for over nine years with numerous teams. She studied with several national and international improv actors, and now she runs FoHi Improv, where she brings the long form improv philosophy to people of all ages in Queens, New York.
I saw Kate and her team in action recently, in an Inclusion by Design conference. They ran an amazing session at the end of the day where she got everyone’s energy up and brought inclusion to life in a very unique way. We’ll talk about that, but first of all, Kate, how did you get started with all this?
I’ve been part of the Manhattan improv scene for close to a decade, and I adore every bit of it. During my time there I had a couple of kids and had other things happening on in my life. I kept noticing that a lot of the people I met didn’t have the time to go into Manhattan to take classes. I was curious about how to get more people involved in improv. A lot of them had heard about it and wanted to try out a class, but they couldn’t get out at night to get back into Manhattan. I had settled in central Queens and decided to try putting a free drop-in out there, getting people through the door, and see if there was any interest to start a round of classes in that area. In a day I had taught over 40 people, so there was a strong interest. Some people even wanted to have it in their back yard – so the connections we make in class will later be connections made in the community.
A lot of the people I teach are parents, have full-time jobs and responsibilities, and cannot get themselves back into Manhattan to do a late-night hobby. It’s been wonderful, I just started this past May. I’ve made so many wonderful connections in my backyard, and it’s even expanded into Jackson Heights. It’s been a rewarding experience for everybody involved, including myself.
Q: When did you discover the impact that improv can have on people’s lives? Especially for those who don’t do that for a living, who can be parents, workers, anybody in the neighborhood.
When I first started and learned about the philosophy of how important it is to say yes, to be receptive, to be myself, I brought it to my high school students at the time –I was currently teaching high school in Manhattan. I saw the benefits that philosophy had on them because instead of starting from a place of negativity, they would stop, reflect and just say “yes” instead of putting up barriers. Then they saw what happened.
They gave such a strong and positive response, that it made me think: we’re always saying that the times we’re living in are negative and that we don’t know how to make them more positive. There are small ways through which we can affect our mental state, and one of them is to take an improv class –if we look at one another, say “yes” to one another, stop and be receptive to one another, we can start to change our ways of thinking. After an improv class, you feel empowered to look at people in a more positive light, and you realize that no matter our beliefs or where we come from, we can all be aligned in the power of saying “yes” –and adding our perspective, which is one of the main rules of improv.
This felt like such a beautiful message, I couldn’t wait to bring it to everybody. I’ve taught it to all the age groups, from children through adults. It’s a powerful message.
Q: In improv, first, you have to connect to the other person, and listen to what they’re saying — then you say “yes”, and build upon that. It’s about including and bringing other people in.
We all need to have our perspectives heard, which is why we start with “yes” to agree with the person near us, but then we can also add our take on it –that becomes “yes, and…”. We call everything that comes to us a “gift”, and we receive those gifts from everyone around us. We can never truly make a mistake; we look at mistakes as gifts we can take advantage from.
Q: It also teaches us to listen and pay attention, and that’s very important to be able to say “yes”.
Living anywhere near a busy urban center as we do, and being involved in a million and one things like we all are, on some level feels like we’re always rushing. We have to slow down again, be receptive to one another, and a big part of that is learning how to listen and being interpersonal again. These days we spend a good portion of our time on devices, or in situations where maybe we’re sending off emails, but we’re not able to be receptive either. That’s why improv is highly essential for everyone.
Q: How do you bring improv to a professional setting? When I saw you at the Inclusion by Design conference, it was a group of people that didn’t know each other, that were there to discuss an important topic –the role of women at work—and to learn skills. How do you make improv happen in that context?
When I approach any group in which people don’t know each other, I use exercises where every single voice can be heard. I don’t ask people to stand up by themselves and present anything, and instead, I make sure that everyone works towards a common goal. It might be a simple goal, like walking across a circle and saying “yes” to someone, but only if you make eye contact. We do that for each other around the circle, and that starts to bridge the gap, and in the end, it doesn’t matter if we knew each other before, only that we work collectively towards one another. And then bring back all that to the workplace.The people who attended that specific conference were perhaps taking chances, transitioning in their work world, interviewing for jobs, switching directions in their career, or changing their ideas about what they wanted. Improv skills could give them confidence, teach them to be receptive, but they also can help you work on your interviewing and presentation skills –which are very important for entering or re-entering the work world, or switching gears on their own life. That’s why I make sure that my exercises are purely collaborative; I make sure they only work if everybody’s involved in what I expect the product to be at the end. Then everybody feels personally involved in it, and they get to go through their epiphany and awareness of what that exercise means to them during that moment, which is empowering.
Q: At the conference, I saw how the energy changed, and the next day everyone was still talking about the exercises. Could you give more examples of what you do in a team to make everybody feel more included?
Usually, what happens in improv is you take a group of eight to ten people and you produce a piece of theater. That’s the root of long form improv, working together to achieve something. It can’t be discussed beforehand, it can’t be planned, it is a spontaneous art form. All the exercises I bring into a corporate setting or any sort of workshop, are exercises that have that as their long-term goal, but we do the first steps of that process. That means realizing that alone we are important, but together we are stronger. That’s the overall idea I like to work with. I design all of my workshops based on the idea that individually we are very important parts of a larger collective, but only if we listen and work together, we can achieve something unique and special.
We have to take care of our teammates, we have to nurture them. We want to do that in conversations, in our work world, in our everyday life. We don’t want anybody to ever feel like they’re being ignored or dropped. We want to make sure they understand where we’re coming from and that we receive their message as well. The simple games we use as exercises illustrate that, and we hope you can take this back to your world and use it, use these skills.
Q: It’s about feeling seen, heard, and knowing that you have a role in that team, that it cannot function without you.
And being thanked for the gifts you’ve given. That’s the other part I love to emphasize, we need to thank one another more. I do a very simple exercise in which each person shares a moment of their day, and it can be as insignificant as “I tied my shoe incorrectly”, “when I woke up I forgot to have my cup of coffee and I’m dragging”, or “I said something pleasant to my child and they said thank you”, etc. After each person shares, everybody turns to them and screams, claps and yells “Awesome” at them. It doesn’t matter if that moment was a downer or an upper in their day, we’re going to collectively cheer them on. In the end, I ask how that makes them feel, and everybody says it makes them feel incredibly good. Those moments were insignificant, but we changed the energy behind them, and the person knows they’re being heard.
Those are now significant moments and we’re going to shout for you and cheer you on. We forget how simple it can be to just say “thank you, good job today”, over anything. It can be the slightest thing, but if it’s made a difference it helps the person know it. Simple activities like that are very important in our everyday world.
Q: How do you adapt all these exercises to young children? Growing up with those skills is priceless.
Working with kids is very different from working with adults, in the sense that children naturally embrace themselves. Most of the time, kids are more receptively able to give –they give a lot, very easily. By the time we’re adults we’ve gone through so many filters that we decide it’s inappropriate to be silly and light of spirit, and we have a lot of walls up. Sometimes my job with adults is to remove those walls, so we can really explore –with kids, on the other hand, we usually start from a place of high energy and then work out how to use that energy in positive ways.
However, with both children and adults the result is more or less the same. Children need to stop and listen to one another, respect one another and thank each other for the gifts they’re receiving; their creativity is usually very high, and they create very easily in ways that perhaps take a little more time for adults.
Q: Do you use similar exercises for both, or do you adapt them?
I adapt them because with children it depends on what I’m going for. They love to be physically active and move around the room, and anything that involves figuring something out collectively, as a group. I do one exercise where a child has to leave the room, the rest of us start to do something, and then the child comes back and has to guess what we’re doing –which, by the way, adults love to do as well. These games work with both age groups, but children love to figure things out, finding the answer to a puzzle.
It is interesting to see how children and adults work differently. With kids it’s important to have the same level of confidence, so they don’t feel they’re the only ones doing something –so they feel they’re embraced by the community in every activity. That prevents them from being anxious about exercises like getting up and talking in front of people.
Q: It seems like in those activities everyone has an equal role, and that in itself is inclusive. Each person has the same voice as everybody else.
It’s essential, and as you advance with improv as an art form you realize that no member of the team can take more stage time than the rest. The group learns how to balance time, so everybody is equally part of something and it becomes a beautiful thing. It becomes organic, and that’s what a team should be.
Q: You were talking about long form improv. What other types are there, and why is the long form ideal for the skills you help build?
There’s another important type of improv, called short form, in which the games are also very fun. The show Whose Line Is It Anyway? features short form techniques, and everything I’ve talked about can be found in short form games. The difference is that in that case, their only goal is to be funny.What I love about long form, on the other hand, is that it’s organically funny. The funny comes from people bringing themselves, their life experiences into this piece of art. A long form set can range from 25 to 45 minutes, and you’re working with a team to create this piece of theater in which each person brings their ideas and personal experience. For me, that’s a very rewarding process. We get to share our narrative, and the audience may see as comical something we didn’t think was funny. Human life is comical –our errors, our thought processes are comical and relatable. Long form takes these common fables and makes them relatable. It’s a very unique and engaging experience to watch an art piece being developed in front of your eyes.
I appreciate short form and what’s behind it –but I think long form is very special, and I love the process.
Q: Also, it seems that storytelling is an important component. Storytelling is always a very engaging and compelling way to get people to participate and remember.
My beginner classes have their first show tonight, and the form we used is based on monologues. They come out, do a monologue based on an audience suggestion, and then scenes based on that. It’s very rewarding, and it’s fun because the monologues are true –they tell true anecdotes from each person’s life, and everybody gets to respond to that.
Q: Do you see any uplifting trends that involve improv and inclusion? Any good examples?
At least for the past decade, the improv movement has been strongly positive. I see it as a tool that’s being brought into schools, companies and people’s backyards as a way to communicate with their community members. It’s a wonderful thing because it’s highly inclusive, nobody’s left out, everyone participates and feels confident once they’ve tried the exercises. It has been a game-changer in every setting that I’ve seen, it’s highly inclusive and makes people feel very empowered and connected to their neighbors. I do see a positive trend, because it’s being brought in by the various theaters that teach it in Manhattan, and it’s appearing in more and more towns and communities. It seems like everybody’s becoming aware of what improv can do, and I find that very positive.