Free Hugs Day

How Improv Inspired Free Hugs Day

I first met Paul Normandin in an workshop I was teaching at the Oklahoma Improv Festival, and months later I got to work with him again in Austin at the Out of Bounds Comedy Festival. I always like seeing him. He’s warm and friendly, and he is always a good reminder about how big the improv community really is.

I recently saw Paul again when I was in Austin, TX, to teach at The Institution Theater, and he told me about this wonderful event called Free Hugs Day that he does each year and how improv had inspired him to do it. I asked him if he would be willing to tell his story, and here it is. Enjoy!

As I was standing on the corner of 6th Street and Congress Avenue in downtown Austin at 9 a.m. on Dec. 27, 2011 holding a sign that read “Free Hugs,” I was thinking my idea was pretty crazy. It was a brisk 40 degrees and windy. I was in the shadow of tall buildings and sunrise had passed, but the heat was not finding my double socked feet, and I was shivering. I may have been dressed in a nice suit and tie, but they did little to stave off the cold. My friend, Gloria, gave me a hug, and I smiled when she left to get my coat from the car.

So why was I here?

Well, in 2010, I started taking improv classes from Andy Crouch at the Hideout Theatre in downtown Austin, not far from where I was standing that morning. That same month, my wife, Victoria, and I had institutionalized our adult child in far off Michigan. I needed to do something to help me cope, or to at least distract me from that. And when I asked myself, “What could drag my focus away from everything?,” the thought of standing on a stage without any script topped the list.

I was 48 years old when I came to improv. I did not want to get on Saturday Night Live or be the next Jay Leno. I just wanted to try to find something more challenging than raising a mentally ill child. I failed.

But I did find improv and all the people that go with that! I found best friends, “Yes, And…,” and a community of people who encourage and support each other. I had been taking classes for about 15 months, and I was at a bar after one of those classes with some of my best friends. (I don’t qualify the term “best friend” with “from improv” anymore). The conversation turned to scenes and formats and crazy ideas we have. Without thinking, I mentioned my crazy dream of standing on a street corner with a sign that read Free Hugs. I said I wanted to do it as a social experiment, but also because people are just too afraid of each other.

Before I could qualify how silly this idea was and how I could never muster the courage to do it, someone said, “That’s a cool idea.” People at the table recommended where I could stand, what I could wear, and what I could say. They projected how many people might hug me and how I could make the signs so they would last the whole time in any weather. Gloria Rabil Bankler said, “If you do it, I will be the first one to give you a hug.” She agreed this was crazy, but…

Friends started talking about joining me for an hour or so. People offered to bring the huggers food. Before I knew what had happened, an event sprung to life around me. I had been training for 15 months to say “Yes, and,” so I did. Thank goodness for Facebook and the ease with which you can make an event.

I have worked as a project management professional for most of my life. I have led big efforts to make big changes, but never for my own purposes. I bring enthusiasm to the projects I work on, but this event had a mind (and life) of its own. Encouragement and enthusiasm came from everywhere.

Back to the street corner. Before I knew it, it was 11 a.m. The light rain had stopped and Ryan Hill, Bob Olmstead and Allison Asher showed up at 6th and Congress. It was warming up and the hugs were plentiful. That moment remains etched in my soul. I had said something in a bar three months earlier and now it was happening because my friends all said “Yes, and…” to my crazy idea.

Since that day, we have continued to hold a Free Hugs Day in Austin every year, and we have steadily grown in participants.

The question “Why are you doing this?” is often quickly followed by, “What church are you with?”

But their questions are always answered with an enthusiastic response. We either say something like, “We want to make people feel less afraid of each other, and this event is not affiliated with any organization,” or “No church, and who doesn’t need more hugs in their lives?”

I say “no church,” but really I guess this event has its roots in the followers of Keith Johnstone and Del Close, because their followers trained me and my friends, so I guess that makes us disciples of the Church of Improv. Too much?

Over the first five years, I learned that Jan. 21 is International Free Hug Day. So naturally, I changed the date of the Austin event to align with that date. Thanks to my friend, Tim Coyle, I have a flag that flew over the Texas Capitol on Jan. 21, 2015. I have a letter that came with it saying why the State House of Representatives gave me the flag. I also have a proclamation from the City of Austin signed by the Mayor and City Council saying nice things about me and Austin Free Hug Day, which was all delivered with speeches and such in the guise of an improv show on stage at the Hideout Theatre, thanks to Roy Janik, the artistic director there. I cried a lot and someone filmed the whole damn thing!

As I finish this blog, it is 12:03 a.m. on Jan. 21, 2016. In less than nine hours, I will be on the street for the sixth annual Austin Free Hug Day. I will be giving out hugs with my friends and saying funny things to those passing by in hopes they are not so afraid to say yes and trust us with a hug.

Thanks, Jimmy, for giving me the opportunity to share my story about how improv and the Austin improv community gave me courage, encouragement and a tacit agreement to try to change the world, one hug at a time.

Are you interested in learning a new way of improvising that’s as easy as having a conversation? Sign up for Jimmy’s Art of Slow Comedy Level 1 class, starting Feb. 17. Early Bird special ends Feb. 1!

1 reply
  1. Tim Coyle
    Tim Coyle says:

    this was my first year joining Paul, and it truly is a life changing event, here was my take away (written 1/22/16) from doing this


    Who would have thought 8 hours of hugging would take a toll on my back (ok it wasn’t the hugs, it was the concrete). But worth every stinking minute. Had so much fun spreading love yesterday.

    Some of my favorites

    Group hugging both strangers and Lyndsey Resnik, my personal trainer.

    Running into three former coworkers, one who kept asking if i really did take PTO to hug people all day (asked me at 9 am and again around 4 pm)

    The people in cars opening their windows for hugs, or getting out of their car for one

    The guy who threw his car in park and ran to get hugs, this was one really big guy and he was so excited for hugs it was contagious

    The little boy who wanted hugs, his mom didnt want to let him so he pulled away and ran to get one

    The two girls with their dad visiting Austin from Connecticut, who ran corner to corner to get hugs and then took (after they asked) a sign so they can walk around town getting more hugs from people

    Dancing cross corner with a fellow hugger

    The guy who just got out of jail and you felt him sink into the hug, he needed them and you could tell it meant a lot to him

    Hearing the incredibly nice blessings from Jayme Ramsay, a friend and fellow Improviser as she thanked everyone for doing what they do for the city.

    Learning a new hug (the cinnamon roll)

    Seeing people being tentative and after their friends or just from watching others get into the hugs they overcame a fear to get one as well – this is not easy for many to do, and really is a big accomplishment for them.

    But one of the neatest things was helping the lady across the street, giving her food and passing on a gift card a stranger felt the need to buy us to get coffee (the gift card was because the person wanted to show us appreciation for what we were doing, which appropriately was then paid forward). That was the hug she needed and i am glad she received it.


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