How Improv Saved Me

Three years ago, I was formally introduced to the art of improv. I say formally because I had dabbled in it as a teen, and was exposed to it throughout the years. However we were formally introduced in August of 2011.

2011 was the hardest year of my life. I finished grad school by the skin of my teeth, I had gotten out of a bad relationship (and replaced it with another), and my dog, grandfather, and uncle passed away within 5 months of each other. It was very hard to be around myself. I tried to escape with partying and jetting off to Portugal, but I could never run fast enough. Soon, I was back home sitting on my staircase wondering what I was going to do with the rest of my life.  And wondering how I could escape.

Within two weeks of that moment, I had a job doing what I went to school for and doing what was expected of me. As I was fitting in at my new job, my uncle passed away. Although expected, there was always a hope that maybe the cancer would disappear. Maybe then this pain would too. When it didn’t, I felt a part of me was dying as I was “living.”

A few days after my uncle’s funeral, a slightly bearded man named Jose came to my work to do a team building workshop with a focus on improv. I played it off as nothing during the workshop, but inside I felt a burst of happiness I hadn’t felt in I don’t know how long. I was timid and a bit reserved during the workshop, but a part of me knew I wanted to do more of this.

I convinced a friend of mine to come to Jose’s theater, The Torch Theatre, for a free class. It was me, her, and this guy in the class. I was really bad and wondered why did I waste this Wednesday night? Feeling down about the class, I didn’t go back the next month. 

On November 11, 2011, my nephew Luke was born. On that day he was, and still is, perfect. Here was this beautiful life I was holding. So innocent. He didn’t know how bad the world could be, or cared how sad I was. He was happy just resting in my arms. As I held them, I decided that 2012 was going to be my year of growth and change. I wanted to be better for him.

A week before my birthday (November 18), I wrote down new things I wanted to try in 2012. On that list was improv. In December of 2011, I went to the next free class. I was still was bad, but with Level 1 starting soon (and on sale) I decided to give it a go. One class session wasn’t going to hurt. What was the worst that was going to happen?

The first class session was hard for me. I was scared a lot of the time, and people kind of scared me as I had personal space and intimacy issues. I didn’t like people getting too close or touching my face as they would know who I really was and would feel my imperfections. I would like to think I hid it well, but I don’t think I did. I would often go home from class feeling bad, but as the weeks went by and the classes progressed, I started to feel a little less bad about improv and myself.

 It would take months and months of classes and shows to break down walls, but once they did, I started to enjoy the art more, and being around myself. One big breakthrough was when a fellow classmate, and now great friend Andrew, literally touch my face during a scene. He didn’t know about my issues, and I don’t think would have cared. He showed me that I was alright and I can be myself. I was okay.

As I started to attend more shows and perform more, I started to feel comfortable in my own skin, onstage and off. I discovered new things about myself, and didn’t feel scared to express and show them. As a result, improv has allowed me to travel more, have closer relationships with my family and friends, and find happiness that I could create. I started to enjoy being around myself more, and enjoying my imperfections. I’ve also liked to think I’ve gotten better at improv.

Improv saved me. It wasn’t therapy, but it allowed me to express emotions and feelings I would have kept hidden from the world. I’ve met some of the greatest friends and family from improv. It also gave me strength to move from the tiny pond I love of Phoenix, Arizona to the massive lake of Chicago to study this art. Without improv, I don’t where or who I would be.

Probably still on that staircase.

May regret posting this, but I found the video from that workshop because Google. I also have bangs. Enjoy?



The Improv Retreat

Repost from my blog entry at

I would like to start this by saying I grew up in the desert. December for me is 60s and a cactus with some lights. May not sound as romantic to you, but to me it’s the bees knees. It was also that December when I got a Facebook message from Rick Grove and Lauren Corl telling me we must go to Wisconsin (which was under piles and piles of snow) for the Improv Retreat with the one and only Tara DeFrancisco – who I had met for the first time on stage as a part of her show DeFrancisco. While I would like to say I thought long and hard about the snow, before I knew it, I clicked the link to pay and off my pay check went.

I was more than happy to spend my weekend in the woods with 275 other improvisors at B’nai B’rith Beber Camp in Mukwonago Wisconsin. The Improv Retreat started as a dream of Tara’s to help bring improvisors to the Midwest for a weekend of workshops, art, and the love of improv. It’s summer camp for adults who like to make things up. And maybe dance in the woods. And hug.
The weekend finally came as Lauren, Brandon and I picked up Rick from the airport and drove towards the land of cheese. Armed with snacks, cider (did not drink it on the way there mom), and Starbucks, we spent the ride trying to guess who was teaching what, where we were sleeping, and how much bug spray we may need. Rick, Lauren, and I came from The Torch Threatre in Phoenix, so we were even more excited/nervous of the different improvisors we were going to meet.

Upon arrival, I was in awe of how green and big the camp was as we walked to Crown Hall to receive our bunks and schedules. To greet us was Tara, looking excited and happy to see everyone. If you don’t know Tara, she has the ability to make you feel like a rockstar with just a hug. She made us all feel welcomed as we walked up the hill to our bunks. On the way down the 72 steps (which we walked up and down every morning), I started running into familiar faces from my last summer in Chicago, including my level 1 teacher Higbee (who had the same whit and charisma. Big fan.)

Lauren and I quickly got situated in our bunks, covered ourselves with bug spray, and went back to Crown Hall for announcements. During camp, everyone would meet one to two times a day to talk about events, policies, and to laugh. The camp had everything schedule from the moment we got there, to the moment we left. While it left us little time for free time, it also gave you the option to stay active and enjoy your surroundings.

Included in our schedules were three workshops, shows each night, shows during the day, smores, food, and my favorite- Joe Bill talking under a tree. While technically it was by a flag pole, to be given the opportunity to talk with Joe Bill about his traveling and experiences in improv is something I will not forget.
The camp experience is something I will not forget mainly because it took you out of your comfort zone. From each of my workshops they emphasized being here in this moment-this is what matters. And I know we say this over and over again as improvisors, but we sometimes need to be reminded to get out of our comfort zones. In Fear No More, Nnamdi Ngwe told us to look in our fellow actor’s eyes and fall in love. In the past, I’ve had trouble with eye contact and this was intimidating. However, in this moment, you are here and can’t look away.

In Organic Games with Higbee, we literally played childhood games to find patterns in the play happening and how we were going to support it without saying HEY SUPPORT THIS. For a moment, I had to remind myself how to play leapfrog. In Fireball Theory with Jill Bernard, we focused on reacting without telling your partner their nana is crazy, and saying the first thing to come to mind (banana banana) by remaining active in your play.

Stepping out of your comfort zone spilled over in other areas of camp. With a large group, it can be intimating at times to go up and talk to people. In reality, everyone at camp was very welcoming and said hey jump right in! For me I got to be a part of my first rap jam, play with improvisors from all over the world, do handstands by the lake, and play Merlin (sorry Robert and Colin if I messed up the name).

Camp gave me the refresher boost I needed. It rocked its first year and can’t wait to go back to the woods. It was awesome.


A Social Festival For All.

Repost from my blog entry on

So you have a Facebook and Twitter for your improv festival. You may even have a Google+ page. Sweet. Awesome. Now what? Many festival organizers and improv groups know they need a Facebook, Twitter, and all the things because everyone else has it. But most of the time those pages just sits their unused which can be your biggest mistake. By leaving your social untouched and unloved, you are missing out on one of your festival’s biggest assets to help not only promote, but also build your festival’s presence. Here are a few tips to help you get started make your Social Media well social.

1. Make it a part of your marketing plan.

Along with your website, interviews, and flyers, your Social Media should be considered in your marketing plan. As Ariel said, go where the people are. With nearly 30% of Americans getting their news via Social Media, it is a force that can not be ignored when it comes to promoting. Just posting everyone once in a while is cool, but it doesn’t get the word out. You get the word out by coming up with a plan for before, during, and after the festival. This can range from what you are posting, Facebook advertising, and hashtags for the event.
On anything you use for marketing, make sure it connects with your Social Media. For example, on flyers make sure you have your Facebook and Twitter handle. Connect your website with your social platforms. The main purpose of Social Media isn’t to sell sell sell, but think of it as a television commercial or radio spot, but online. While you can’t always connect directly to ticket sales, the proof will be in how well the word got out.

2. It’s Personal

Let your festival reflect the offline atmosphere online. That means all your posts shouldn’t be come to our show! Come to our workshops! Buy tickets! Some of your posts (which should maybe be 5-7 a week leading up to the festival) should be about the groups, some of the planning, fundraisers, or anything personal towards the festival. One of the 13th Phoenix Improv Festival’s most popular posts were photos of the performers as teenagers. Another was images from past festivals that built up nostalgia and got users excited for the upcoming festival. People in general relate to things more on a personal level. As a result, they are more likely to invest in seeing your festival, and are less likely to ignore your buy tickets posts when they do happen.

3. Get the performers involved

Piggy backing off point two, if your performers are having fun it will reflect in their shows. This can be done before the festival by featuring them in your social media, emailing asking for any of their promotion, or as the Phoenix Improv Festival likes to do, treat them like rockstars. Be creative in how you post or get them involved, and know they may not want to and that is alright. You may want to start with local groups and build from there. Those groups that are invested personally will your biggest advocates for your current festival and beyond.

4. Your audience isn’t just improvisors.

While the performers of the festival may be your biggest advocates, they aren’t the ones buying tickets. Sure their family and friends may purchase some, however you should try to appeal to the general public of your city. With your Social Media, make sure some of your posts are directed at people who love watching improv to those who have not seen it before. This can range from videos, photos, and getting the venue and local businesses involved. For example, any Tweet we were sure to mention the Herberger Theater and mention our Family Friendly shows. Also connect with your local audience because who knows your city better than you?

5. Have Fun!

At the end of the day, improv is adults playing make believe on stage. While we can have grounded moments, your social media shouldn’t be your Office Space type of job. Your Social Media should reflect the fun and beauty that is improv. Whether it is pictures from the event, quotes from the show, or what is going on backstage, let your audience, performers, and online community know the fun you are having. Don’t be an asshole.

Reflection #100HappyDays Day 40ish

I’ve been asked by several people why am I doing the #100happydays challenge. I appear to already be happy all the time my friend Brandon has repeated, and while I want to argue…I can’t.I am happy, but there is always the thought of missing. Missing a moment, someone, or something. I think a part of the reason I did this challenge to answer what is missing.

I am getting there. What I can say is at this point in the challenge, I have started to smell the roses more. I am one of those go until the wheels fall off and then some more. It’s almost like I can’t be by myself and enjoy my surroundings mainly out of fear. Fear of being left to my own thoughts and questioning them. ‘What will make me happy and are you?’ is one I repeat a lot. For the most part yes, but something is missing. And as corny as it sounds, the more I do this challenge, the more I am getting a clearer answer of I can’t plan my happiness.

My best friend Karli (if she is reading this) is probably say uh duh as I am a planner. At one point I had my whole life planned of getting married and having kids after college in a job that requires a suit. I would say I often ignored the little part of me that said that’s a dumb idea, but my actions of travel, bad breakups said otherwise. You need to do more, and while it maybe for others, it isn’t for you now.  Don’t get me wrong, I would love to have all that one day (well maybe not the suit portion), but it took life and my mind and body agreeing that planning was silly including my happiness.

I’ve found by doing so, a lot more positive energy has come my way and my Type A personality has calmed down…kind of. 🙂

Here’s to 60ish more days of happy to lead to a lifetime. You can follow the adventure at

Writing #100happydays

I use to write more. Not for business, but like for fun. I am not sure why I don’t. Maybe because I would have to face myself or even be proud and loud of the woman I am starting to be.

We are often told to not praise and shout from the rooftops of our accomplishments and achievements. May make others feel bad or what have you. The truth is, I am proud of who I am and how long this journey has been to get there.

Am I 100% proud and happy? No. I stay busy to avoid myself sometimes, or get sad when my focus excludes me from the group. I told my boss last week that I want I be noticed without having to scream it. She told me I have never been the quiet one. Her statement got me thinking and reflecting more on that, and why I’ve chosen the path I have. The answer is, I was miserable before. Before I found improv. Before I found running. Before being comfortable in my own skin.

Sure I have always been loud, but now I need to be with a purpose. Say I love you more. Say I am lucky to have you. Say I am happy. I often joke that my 18 year old self would hate my 27 year old self because she wouldn’t think I was cool for drinking Angry Orchard and writing on Thirsty Thursday. That 18 year old should probably put down the Bud Light.

So I’ve decided to do the #100happydays challenge. For 100 days starting 03/28/14, I will post a picture on Instagram @mariakonopken of something that makes me happy. I have no idea what that might be, but let’s do this. I won’t write everyday here, but maybe once a week or so. I just love the below picture they have on their site. Sweet screenshot I know. Here goes everything.

Hugs and Skittles!


Oh Chicago

My bags are not packed and I am not ready to go.

Who knew I would fall in love with a city so quickly like I have Chicago? I came here on an adventure to learn more about improv and spend time with my family. I’ve done this before and while I cried, it never felt I guess painful to leave.

This summer has changed me for the better. I am more confident in me. I love more of me. I love the people. From improv classes and shows to meeting new people to becoming closer with family and friends, each played a roll in the person I am. The person the city made me a better person.

It hurts to leave so quickly after I got adjusted, but with anything, there is a reason. What that is, I soon will find.

Thank you to all that supported me here or a far. I still have to pack and catch a flight.

Continue to have fun and love life. I’ll see you when I see you.

Feels Like Home

Repost from my blog entry on

One of my favorite things about The Torch Theatre’s stage is its familiarity.

I know where the holes in walls are, the right corner to hide in, and where the ramp is to not eat it on that stage. I have acted, sang, dance, and been injured on that stage. Some of my favorite memories of performing and class are on that stage.

It feels like home.

The Torch’s stage has also been a place where I play with my friends and have my friends and family come see me. As any improvisor knows, explaining what longform improv is can be hard to someone who hasn’t seen it. While you can defend it all day and tell your mother that she is not a part of your act, it is better when someone sees it.

While some of my friends and family saw my earlier shows (again, I’m sorry), it wasn’t until a few months into learning about improv where I felt home on stage and able to explore. The players in Adult Bakery really helped with this as we spent many Sundays together being goofy and baking with one another. Those Sundays turned into spending a few days at the Torch to basically living at the theatre.

Two of those people who have made me feel at home at the Torch were Chris Hooper and Lauren Corl. They have also made me feel at home in Chicago. While I have made great friends here in Chicago, it is nice to have a little piece of home here.

So it was a no-brainer that we would want to perform together at iO’s BYOT (Bring Your Own Team). BYOT is an open mic night for people to bring their teams to perform a 10 minute set on Saturdays midnight. You submit your team, and it is chosen at random to get up and perform.

Chris, Lauren, and I’s plan was to watch a few acts, perform as Quarter Baker’s Dozen, watch a few more then leave as the show may last until 3 am. Some of our family and friends came out to see us perform which was great because they hadn’t seen us perform before.

For BYOT, after everyone has submitted, they pick your team name off a man dressed as a robot. You are given 10 minutes to warm up, and then your team goes up and performs for 10 minutes. As the crowd roared with excitement, the host and robot picked the first team…us. Chris, Lauren, and I looked at it each other like ummm what? But we didn’t have any time to process it-we were up.

As we waited 10 minutes while the BYOT house team performed, we warmed up near iO’s cabaret bathrooms. We were all a little nervous, but we comforted each other by saying this is like the stage back home. This is like the Torch back home. Sure greats like Tina Fey, Chris Farley, and countless others have performed here, but this is just like any stage. The scene from Hoosiers where Gene Hackman measures the basketball court went through my head, along with my dad cheering, and oddly enough that comforted me.

We were ready to go! They announced our name and sober-ish people welcomed us to the stage. Lauren asked for a suggestion and we were off. We were yelling, chatting, and working out with each other on stage. I laughed a lot and we had fun. In Susan Messing’s words, if you didn’t have fun, you are the a**h***.

Those 10 minutes went quick. Was it our best show? No, but we had a great time. Yes, it was a different stage, but we were familiar with each other and knew we each had each other’s back. I am so blessed to have had Chris and Lauren with me that night, and during my time in Chicago. No matter what, I know I can count on them to have fun, laugh, and be silly on stage and off.