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How an improviser wrote an improv book for kids

As a father of a two-and-a-half year old, I read a lot of children’s books. I mean, a lot. Not only does she have a bookshelf full of them, but she wants to read them over, and over and over. Some are good. Some are not so good. And some I’ve even memorized.

So when I found out recently that someone had written a children’s book about improv, I was intrigued. The book is called Hank and Stella in Something from Nothing, and it’s the story of two cute stuffed animals – Hank, a dog, and Stela, a bunny – who learn what improv is all about. There are even some fun improv games you can play with your kids at the back of the book.

The book is written by Damian Synadinos, an improviser and improv teacher from Columbus, OH. A father of two, Synadinos started improvising in 2007 after a co-worker invited him to her improv graduation show, and he’s been hooked ever since.

Last week, I reached out to Synadinos to ask him some questions about how he got the inspiration for the book, why it’s important to teach improv to kids, and how he uses improv in his parenting.

Q:  How did you come up with the idea for the book?
A: My kids love to read, and I love to read to them. And after reading them piles and piles of excellent (and not-so-excellent) books, I decided to write one myself. I wanted it to be both entertaining and educational, so that they would “laugh while they learn.” After I figured out “why” I wanted to write a book, I had to decide what to write about to fulfill the “why.” Professionally, I’m a speaker and trainer and frequently use applied improv to help adults “laugh while they learn” various fundamental concepts and life skills. And since these fundamental concepts and life skills are also useful and applicable to kids, I decided to write a book about improv, to be both entertaining and educational.

Originally, the book was only intended for my own kids. However, after producing a single copy and sharing it on social media, it got plenty of positive feedback and attention. Then, after a bit of research, I learned that there were no other improv storybooks for kids. And so, I… decided to make the book available to a wider audience. I wanted full control, so I launched a Kickstarter campaign to help pay for self-publishing costs and finally made the book available for sale in June 2018.

Q: Who are Hank and Stella?
A: Hank (the dog) and Stella (the bunny) are my kids’ real-life, stuffed animal friends (lovies). Since the book was originally intended for my kids, I thought they’d enjoy seeing their favorite friends as stars of the book. However, I think that the Hank and Stella characters are also fun, cute, and relatable to many other young kids, as well.

Q: Any truth to the rumor that the success of the book has gone to Hank and Stella’s heads?
A: Unfortunately, yes. They’ve started screening their calls and are looking for representation. Hank already bought a 2019 Jaguar F-type with book proceeds. A Matchbox Jaguar, but still…

Q: Why is it important to introduce improv to children at such a young age? 
A: Because the principles and skills of improv are also useful at play and in life. They can help kids (or anyone!) develop their imaginations, play cooperatively, increase their confidence, and so much more… Plus, kids are usually more malleable than adults. Compared to adults, kids are more willing and able to consider and accept new and different ideas. And so, introducing improv to children makes sense as you have a better chance at instilling good and useful ideas and behaviors that will develop as they grow and help change lives.

Q: What have you learned from your kids that have made you a better improviser and teacher?
A: Many things. Here’s two: Patience. Not in the sense of “they’re trying my…” (although sometimes that, too), but in the sense of being better at accepting and tolerating delay. Sometimes, I observe my kids as they carefully and quietly consider some situation or problem before acting. And in addition, I’ve become better at waiting for them. This has helped me in class and on stage as I am now more likely to consider and tolerate silence and delays. On stage, I used to think that someone should always be speaking, and I’d often try to fill up any silence with noise. However, that’s usually all it was: noise. Not real, meaningful, thoughtfully-considered content. Now, thanks to my kids, I am more aware that silence and waiting on stage (and in life) is natural and ok.

They’ve also taught me perspective. Adults have years of learning, examples, and experience about how they “should” see the world. However, kids don’t. Most kids have not yet developed strong biases, social norms, expectations, etc. And so, their perspective is often surprising and refreshing. And as I enjoy watching them view the world through their untarnished lens, I also get to practice empathy as I strive to see and feel things as they do. And as I develop my perspective and empathy, it helps me on stage as I consider my own character, the characters of others, the scene, the situation, and more – all moving towards a more interesting, entertaining, and successful improv experience. And, of course, enhanced perspective and empathy are important in life, as well.

Q: How do you use improv in your parenting?
A: Lots of ways. One example is a game I sometimes play with my kids that we call, “Or what else…?” In the game, I pose some question or problem and then ask them to think of solutions. Like, “How can I get an apple out of a tall tree?” After they come up with an answer, I agree and then ask, “Or what else…?” Then they try and come up with another (and another, and another) way to answer the question or solve the problem. It is essentially a long game of “Take That Back.” But it helps develop their imagination, creativity, problem solving skills, and more.

Another example is related to the idea of “no mistakes in improv.” When my kids have an accident or make a mistake, I often try to help them think about how or why that accident or mistake might actually be a good thing. This helps teach them that the reaction to an accident or mistake is usually more important than the accident or mistake itself. And it also helps them exercise and develop their perceptions.
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My 5 Favorite Books of 2018

Oh man, the holidays are upon us, which means we have to start thinking about giving and getting gifts, for ourselves and others. I love books. I love reading them, I love buying them, and if you’re curious about what to get me this year, I love getting them. (Though I really prefer a Barnes and Noble gift card because I also love going to the book store and browsing).

This year I did a lot of reading on various subjects, so I thought I’d pick out my favorites that you can get for someone else in your life or pick out for yourself.

  1. If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?: My Adventure in the Art and Science of Communicating
    by Alan Alda

    I was on the phone with someone who was thinking of hiring me for an improv workshop working with medical residents at a hospital in the suburbs. While we were on the phone she said, “I like to do the mirror exercise from Alan Alda’s book.”“What book?” I asked. Me, the improv nerd, had not heard about it. She said that he wrote a book about using improv games and exercises with scientists and doctors to help them become better communicators. As soon as I got off the phone with her, I went to the book store and got a copy, and I was surprised how good it was.Alda is a great writer, and I appreciate the humor he brings to his writing, as well as his passion for bringing improv to scientists and doctors. He draws on his acting, theater and improv background as well as stories from his own life of miscommunication. And what I especially loved was he gives you specific games and exercises you can do. If you teach improv, this is recommend reading!

  1. Lose Well
    by Chris Gethard

    You may know Chris Gethard from his podcast, Beautiful Stories from Anonymous People, or The Chris Gethard Show or his HBO one-man show “Career Suicide.”He started out at the UCB Theatre in New York back in 2000, and he performed with the legendary Harold team The Step Fathers before branching out to do stand-up. What I admire about Gethard is that, like Mike Birbiglia, he has succeeded on his own terms, outside the Hollywood system. In this book, he shares with us the lessons he’s learned along the way and the rules that he created that came from his failures, like having his Comedy Central sitcom cancelled after ten episodes.Gethard encourages us to fail and to fail big, and he helps rewire our brains about our thoughts about failing. Though this is book can be funny at times, it’s not New Age-y and it comes from Gethard’s real-life experiences.

  1. Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear
    by Elizabeth Gilbert

    Elizabeth Gilbert is the author of the phenomenal best-selling book Eat, Pray, Love. And in this straightforward book she demystifies the creative process. It’s full of inspiration in a very practical way.What I took away from her book is that it is our job is to create. It doesn’t matter if we make a living off of our creations or not; it’s important to create just because it brings us joy, and the results are not always guaranteed. In fact, at times Gilbert is so honest about her creative process that the book is sobering to read, but that is also its strength. By taking the magic out of creativity, we are freed up to be even more creative and feel that maybe we are creating for a higher purpose. She is an excellent writer and you can feel that she has poured herself and her process into this book.

  1. Long Story Short: The Only Storytelling Guide You Will Ever Need
    by Margot Leitman

    I often hear improvisers say they want to do stand-up, which can be intimidating and a less forgiving art form than improv. If you’ve been craving to do some solo performance but you’re afraid to try stand-up, I would suggest trying a storytelling open mic instead. And a great place to start would be to read this very practical book on storytelling. Leitman started the storytelling program at UCB Theatre in New York and she was a five-time Moth StorySLAM winner and was the Moth Grand Slam champion in New York in 2011. So she speaks from experience as a performer and a teacher and it shows. Her book is very thought out and she gives you easy-to-follow tips and suggestions to help you go deeper in your stories.

  1. The Law Of Divine Compensation: On Work, Money and Miracles
    by Marianne Williamson

    You know I am good for at least one spiritual book on the list, and this is a good one. I was debating whether I should choose this one or Marianne Williamson’s classic, A Return to Love, but I chose this one because it’s about was so many of us artists suffer from: Lack of self-worth. Williamson bases this book, like many of her other ones, on the Course in Miracles, which she distills down to understandable concepts. I often get fearful and anxious about money, my career, and what should I do next, and Williamson addresses these issue and offers us a spiritual solution. Her theory is that if you want to have an abundant career and an abundant life, you have to change your thoughts from those of fear to those of love. And while that isn’t always as easy as it sounds, it’s a concept that I would love to embrace.What are some of your favorite books that you’ve read in 2018? I’d love to hear them in the comments below.

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