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103: Listening x Creativity: Tim Miller, Improv Extraordinaire

Updated: Dec 14, 2023

Growing up, improv scared the pants off me. I dreaded the moments where I had to think ‘off the cuff’ or make up a scene in front of the people around me. It was probably my least favourite part of the drama curriculum that I adored throughout my four years of high school.

Improvisational theatre (or ‘improv’) is a form of live theatre where everything is made up in the moment including the characters, plot and dialogue, often derived from a single constraint like a short scene description, prop or even just a single word.

But that fear that lived in me 20 years ago has quieted as I’ve grown and experienced scarier things than looking goofy on a stage. Improv now excites me from the perspective that it’s a safe space to practice vulnerability and trust in a community of like-minded people. The shared experience of trying and succeeding or trying and failing and picking myself back up again, is crucial to confidence-building and to personal growth. If you’ve never experienced improv, I encourage you to give it a shot. You’ll learn a lot about yourself.

Recently, I had the opportunity to participate in an improv workshop with my Interdisciplinary Innovation students. Facilitated by Kevin Frank, the former Artistic Director of The Second City Toronto’s Training Centre, who is also a notable Canadian actor, teacher and creative artist. In this workshop, he led our students through a series of exercises designed to improve their listening and communication skills. One of the most memorable games he had us play was called ‘Imaginary Birthday Party’ conducted in teams of three. The way it worked was this:

It was someone on the team’s birthday and they were asked to describe their ideal party. The other two members of the team had to provide feedback about the ideas, however they must always start their feedback with the word ‘no’.

It was now the next person on the team’s birthday and they were asked to describe their ideal party. The other two members of the team had to provide feedback about the ideas, however they must always start their feedback with the words ‘yes, but…”.

It was now the final person’s birthday and they were asked to describe their ideal party. The other two members of the team had to provide feedback about the ideas, however they must always start their feedback with the words ‘yes, and…”.

I caught on quickly to the pattern that would emerge as the game went on. When prompted to reflect, students described the first ‘no’ round as coming up against feelings of defeat, lacking motivation to continue contributing ideas knowing that they would all be shot down. Students described the second ‘yes, but’ round as not as defeating as the first, but still challenging, as every suggestion they made was accepted but had an excuse attached as to why the idea couldn’t be fulfilled. Lastly, students described the final ‘yes, and’ round as containing a whole different energy. Ideas were both accepted (yes) and actively built on (and), the result of which was a variety of new ideas that weren’t explored in the earlier rounds.

The moral of the story is this: ‘Yes, and’ is as as helpful a framework in improv as it is in everyday life. By ‘yes anding’ the conversations we have with others everyday, we show that we’re listening and that we care by accepting and building on what was said. And the greatest lesson for me came when Kevin explained that even if we don’t agree with someone’s idea, we can still use this framework of accepting and building. ‘Yes’ allows them to feel heard, while we can use the connector ‘and’ to ask if they’ve considered x option or if they’ve thought about y scenario, for example.

Coming back to my earliest experiences with improv, in this episode, you’ll meet TIm Miller, otherwise known as ‘Mr. Miller’ who is my beloved high school drama teacher. Tim opened my eyes to the world of improv and encouraged my first attempts at the practice. He was a transformative force in my life, both witnessing his take on creative living (dabbling in a little of this and a little of that), as well as from his passion and his efforts and his joy that he brought into the classroom. I learned so much as his student; the lessons learned on the stage, as well as lessons learned backstage through observing Mr. Miller’s approach to life.

I’ve sent Tim Christmas cards for years and years and this year I accidentally stumbled on a message he sent me through a social media platform I rarely use. He and I got back in touch after more than a decade and while lots has changed, once we got talking, it was as though nothing had changed. When we hopped on this call, he was a little beardier than I had known him, but otherwise he was exactly as I remember: joyful, creative and unafraid of showing students vulnerability, with a wicked sense of humor and a desire to make the world a better place, one conversation at a time.

I am so grateful for all he has done for me and the belief that he’s had in me in my formative years. Let’s get this very special conversation started, one that’s been 20 years in the making.

Listening Invitation:

The Yes-And framework is foundational in improv and I believe it can also be transformative if we apply its ‘accept and build’ philosophy to our everyday lives. Listening to the world around us is critical, but listening to ourselves – and specifically listening to the positive things we say about ourselves – is just as important. This listening invitation encourages you to ‘yes and’ your work to encourage contentment.

It’s human nature to want to improve ourselves. Feedback is an important part of the creative process, however there comes a point when criticism about our own work is no longer helpful or productive. It’s at this point we can choose contentment over judgment.

First, choose work that you’ve either completed recently or long ago. This could be any type of creative work, whether a painting, a piece of writing or anything in between. While there are always things that could be improved, I invite you to make one positive statement about your work. For example, you could say that you like the brush strokes.

Now say to yourself: “Yes, and...”. Accept your own positive feedback and build on it with another positive statement about the work. Keep ‘Yes And-ing’ your piece of work until you’ve entirely exhausted all possible positive things to say and then move on to another, repeating the process. Being kind, gentle and generous with the compliments you give yourself is an important step to hearing your inherent value and your worth. Focusing on the ‘yes and’s...’ in your work – listening to your positive words about yourself – has powerful and compounding effects.

About Our Guest:

Timothy Miller is a high school educator of 20 years, focusing on Drama, but also teaching music, history and most recently had the honour of teaching Indigenous Studies. His wife of 27 years and-long suffering adult children tolerate him. But his Great Dane, Winston, thinks he’s pretty cool. He is a huge fan of Film and TV but his true love is Improv.

Music: Uptown by Ketsa, licensed with permission from the Independent Music Licensing Collective -

Talk Paper Scissors Theme Music: Retro Quirky Upbeat Funk by Lewis Sound Production via Audio Jungle

Boat Origami Photo: Boat Origami Photo by Alex on Unsplash


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