David Barth and Lisa Kays: Troupemates, spouses, and co-parents

In celebration of the run of WIT’s romantic comedy Improv Actually, WIT is interviewing several couples who met through WIT.

Before Lisa Kays and David Barth were married, she was the coach of his improv team Neighbors. Now they’re both members of the team—although taking care of their toddler son sometimes prevents them from actually performing together.

How did you get involved in improv?

David: My therapist, Jeffrey Frank, recommended that I try improv as a way to meet people outside of work, improve my public speaking skills, bolster my self-confidence, and have fun. Jeffrey was correct on all counts. Years later, and some time after I met Lisa, I learned that Lisa knew Jeffrey, not only as a professional colleague (Lisa is also a therapist), but as a former troupemate!

Lisa: I met Topher Bellavia at a rooftop happy hour for a co-worker he was friends with. I was looking for something new to try to meet new people and challenge myself. I had always been interested in performing and trying out acting and comedy but never really had. I made Topher promise me I wouldn’t be the worst one in the class, which evidently I was worried about. I believed him for some reason when he made the promise based on a conversation on a roof. When I showed up for my first class about a year later, I honestly didn’t even know what improv was. I think I thought it was stand-up and was pleasantly surprised when we played silly games instead.

You guys first got together while Lisa was coaching David in Neighbors? What were your first impressions of each other?

David: My first impressions of Lisa included the fact that she is very friendly and outgoing, being a major contributor to the chitchat we would have before practice. I also thought that she is a great coach. She sees how to improve or fix a scene while there’s still time to make a change, by rewinding only a line or two, or one choice, and she would side coach us with that suggestion so that we could have a better, and more fun, scene.

Lisa: David did not talk. I remember him hovering in the corner while we did the pre-practice chit chat, and once I think he answered a question about his job. I remember being intrigued by that and finding whatever he said about a case he’d worked on interesting. I think I assumed he was kind of nerdy and goofy and I honestly didn’t register him much until he friended me on Facebook and started engaging in funny debates about things and then started teasing me from inside scenes.

What’s it like performing with someone who you’re dating/married to? What’s the difference between that and a regular scene partner.

David: Many issues we confront, whether they are immediate or long-running, seem to come out in scenes together. I find it fun to have a scene that relates to something we are dealing with in other contexts, and to have that be our secret. Sometimes the roles are reversed; sometimes the issue simply serves as inspiration for a scene, a character, or a particular choice. But the fact that you have a deeper relationship with your spouse/partner/significant other gives you access to a greater set of collective, unspoken understandings. It takes time and practice to begin to build that with troupemates.

Lisa: I think scenes are more charged with David sometimes, or easier, because there is this “real life” emotional content to draw from. As David says, it’s fun when we do end up in a scene that may parallel something we talk about in real life, or a dynamic we have, and we both know we’re playing it out but no one else does.

It is different though, as we have noticed that David is more reserved when improvising with me, and much more bold and outgoing with the troupe (onstage and off) when I’m not there. After great exploration of this in our couples therapy, we still have no idea why. I also notice that I am probably more deferential in scenes with David. I think this is because I know of the dynamic where he stands back a bit or is quieter when I’m there and so I try to make sure he takes up room in a scene, which I never really attune to with other players.

We also do sometimes use dynamics in scenes to relate to things between us. Like I will note that he was quiet and let me make most of the active choices in a scene as our characters and how that’s like our life. This may not be normal though. I’m a therapist, after all.

Has improv helped you in your family life?

David: Improv has helped me learn to listen and to relate better. I try to empathize and understand more that I used to. I still fall prey to the typical pattern of trying to fix things, or make them seem not as bad as they might first appear, but I have found I am doing this less than I used to as a consequence of improv.

Lisa: Improv is responsible for us being together. When David first asked me out, my instinct was to say “no” and to Friend Zone him, which probably had more to do with my mental and emotional space with dating than with him. But I was like, “You have been working with this troupe on saying “Yes” and taking risks and going on and on about it (which I had been at the time), so you have to go, if nothing else then as a role model. Seriously, this is why I said, “Yes.” Best gift improv has ever given me. So I used improv as the basis for our wedding vows and now we do use it as a common language sometimes when we get stuck in discussions. “You’re negating me,” we might say, or, “Could you just try to Yes this for a second?” or “You are being a bad scene partner right now.” It’s a nice way to argue at times and have it feel less harsh. I think one time when Kate Symes was coaching us, I might have even said, “What would Kate think of this if this were a scene?”

You’re the parents of a toddler, also named David. Can you identify a lesson that improv has taught you that has been helpful to you as a parent?

David: I try to use “Yes, and…” most of the time. David has more fun when he is doing what he wants to do. So long as it’s not unsafe, irresponsible, or otherwise inappropriate, I try to let him have autonomy and direct his own play and activity.

Lisa: Parenting is improv. I honestly don’t know how anyone does it without improv training. Admittedly, I sometimes worry this makes me too lenient. But, I mean, if a kid wants to brush his teeth while standing in the sink, at least he’s brushing them, right? I can be a pretty serious person, so having improv as my primary mindset for parenting is helpful because it reminds me to ask, “How important is this?” and “Yes, let’s try that! Instead of, “No, that’ll make a mess.” I don’t operate without limits or boundaries, but I do consciously try to use improv as a parenting mindset because I want my son to carry with him, above all, into life a sense of play and that feeling good and having fun are just as valuable and perhaps more important than achievement. I worry we’re losing that in our society and that it was such a gift that I got back when I took up improv, and I want him to have it.

How do you manage parenting with trying to keep an improv life?

David: HAHAHA. HAHAHA. Sorry, I had some laughing out loud to get out of the way. I am not sure we “manage” it as much as simply cope with the reality of things. It’s hard. One of us can practice or go to a class while the other one of us parents David. So Lisa and I are currently splitting a single spot in Neighbors, and we rarely improvise together anymore, which I miss. We have on a handful of occasions gotten a babysitter so that we can be in a show together, or even go to see a show together. I am hoping we can do that a little more often now that David is older.

As Lisa said, parenting essentially is improv, just not a life full of formal improv classes, troupe practices, and shows. There are many times that I am genuinely surprised by what David says or does. Learning to react to those surprises in a genuine and honest way, and take them in stride when they they are challenging, has been an important lesson. When you are being peed upon, there’s really not much you can productively do about it besides appreciate the moment and laugh.

Lisa: I had this hilarious fantasy before Bubbius (our son’s nickname) was born that he would play quietly in the corner while we continued to improvise with Neighbors in our living room as we had been. He would grow up with us improvising all around him, would adopt the values and absorb the improv life and values, as well as the lovely people in Neighbors, who I adore. It turns out children do not work that way, so, what David said above.

It’s hard. I’ve noticed that I’ve become more militant since becoming a mom about needing space in improvisation for people who have other things going on, like parenting or a non-flexible job schedule or not having the money to do improv all the time. I didn’t realize until I became a parent how hard it can be to stay in the loop and feel involved and keep your skills up as an improviser when you’re also so focused on something else that’s very intense. So sometimes it’s hard when I hear the ethos about people needing to work for it and be committed enough and it’s like, good God, those were the days when I could give three nights a week to improv and read books and watch videos and talk about it and study it. For most people, that’s just not the reality. I hope we can continue to find spaces, like Improvapalooza, to keep those people engaged and playing and part of the community.

February 2, 2018