4 Life Lessons from an Improv Expert Who Goes Against the Grain: Insights from Stuart “Stu” Nager

Stu the StorytellerImprov is life. People just don’t realize it.” — Stuart Nager

Stuart “Stu” Nager is an improvisation actor who was one of the first proponents of family-friendly improv, owned his own theatre company and is also well known as a professional storyteller. Throughout our interview last month, it became clear that the principles he applied to his performances and career were the very same principles that he applied to life. It’s about observing, getting an intuition for what feels right and acting on it.

In the video below, catch Stu in storytelling action, telling traditional tales of Chelm. You can also view more videos of him at his main website.

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Here are four lessons Stu has garnered throughout his life and career:

  1. All You Need to Know is the Foundation of Your Story
  2. “As a storyteller, I tell stories differently depending on the mood of the audience or the energy,” Stu explains. “I may have to be more energetic to get an audience going or I might change how I tell a story depending on the feel of the country or a recent major event. But the basics will be there; the story beats will be there and I know where the story needs to go.” Likewise, you should start with establishing your core values that function as the foundation of your own life story. Afterward, life is about being flexible enough to take in and work with the surprises and unpredictability.

    “I’ve done a story where I’ve forgotten a part,” Stu relates. “I left out parts because, at that time, it wasn’t necessary for me to tell it. The rest of the story stood on its own. And then there are other times I add more or delete parts.” Be willing to make those necessary changes and take those detours, allowing life to lead you to places you never imagined.

  3. It’s Okay to Be Bored, But DO Something About It
  4. Considering how switching jobs and careers is the trend rather than the exception in this day and age, we should welcome boredom as an instigator for change. “My son keeps telling me that I have ADHD,” Stu jokes. “I do get bored very easily after a while.” It’s why he is so multitalented with projects as a teacher, director, performer and writer, just to name a few of Stu’s roles in life. “I don’t want to work fulltime in one office in one place. The first three months I taught for the New City Department of Education as a fulltime theatre teacher, I thought I was ready for the straitjacket,” Stu remembers. “I want to work fulltime doing different things.” And Stu is a living example that people can be successful dabbling in so many different fields if their hearts so desire.

    Stu the Storyteller
  5. Break the Rules to Fully Express Your Creativity
  6. Being innovative is about thinking outside of the box and Stu certainly attributes his creativity to rule breaking. “Try to set me down with rules and I’ll fight them,” he declares. Stu’s first published short story was accepted for a romance anthology even though a published romance writer warned him that his story outline didn’t fit “the romance writers formula.” “You have a unique voice. It makes people laugh,” the friend commented. “But they’re probably not going to accept you because it doesn’t follow the rules.” The story was published in July.

    “I won’t follow rules or a formula,” Stu explains. “To me, what’s important is if it’s a good story and if it’s well-written.” One of his favorite authors is Roger Selazny who was an award-winning writer, famous for breaking the rules. “What a mind! What a writer! And truly gifted in jumping genres and styles even within science fiction and fantasy,” Stu says in admiration. “He created his own paths in the way that he approached things. That’s one of the reasons he intrigues me — even though he stays within a certain field, his work is so varied.”

  7. Consider What You Would Do for Free
  8. Look back into your past experiences and note the times you volunteered for a project or would have done something for free. Those are glimpses into what you truly love, what you’re truly passionate about and what might be worthwhile to pursue as a career.

    Stu had the perfect example. On a visit to the library of the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, he found a woman telling a story from a picture book. After striking up a conversation with the lady, he offered to tell a story. “I got up and I told an Aesop fable of how the rabbit got his long ears and short, fluffy tail,” he relates. “And I drew a huge crowd! I didn’t get paid for it. It was just fun to tell a story. I just love getting into the story and I love seeing everyone’s reactions. I love everything about it.” It’s no wonder that Stu’s now a sought-after professional storyteller.

You can get in touch with Stu and read snippets of his creative pieces in two blogs — at Born Storyteller he writes on education and the arts while at Tale Spinning he shares experiments in fiction.

How can you apply improv to your life?

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  1. Posted September 17, 2011 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

    I love Stuart’s energy. He simply never stops…He is a very talented writer/storyteller.

  2. Posted September 17, 2011 at 10:49 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for sharing about Stuart. I look forward to the day when I can share a stage with him. Now that is really putting it out there.

    • Posted September 19, 2011 at 3:20 am | Permalink

      I’m always open to collaborate. Just shared space today with storytelling in New Jersey. Fun day. Thanks.

    • Posted September 20, 2011 at 2:11 am | Permalink

      Haha! I can just imagine you there, Roberta! =) That would be amazing!

  3. Posted September 18, 2011 at 11:57 am | Permalink

    I loved learning more about how Stu thinks and creates. A true creative spirit doesn’t worry about rules…and they focus on what they love doing. Stu is truly an example of that!
    ~cath xo

    • Posted September 19, 2011 at 3:21 am | Permalink

      rules? bah…we don’ need no steekin’ rules!!

      Thanks Cathy…I try to just BE. Some people want to squash that.

    • Posted September 20, 2011 at 2:21 am | Permalink

      I so agree, Cathy! That’s the key lesson I picked out from this post too! =) It has helped me broaden my horizons when it comes to creativity in my writing. =)

  4. Posted September 18, 2011 at 6:26 pm | Permalink

    Sam: Congrats on always coming up with interesting interviews.

    Stuart: Bravo for being innovative and going for the award even when the story didn’t fit the profile. I like his attitude towards breaking rules especially in one of his chosen genres, fantasy. Today’s American literature often tends to cater more to rules, style, and technique than to creativity. Other English writing (Britain, Australia, Canada, etc.) is more free-flowing and less hidebound by rules made up by MFA professors and short-fused editors.

    • Posted September 19, 2011 at 3:24 am | Permalink

      Thanks Penelope: to me, what I wrote was romance, and the editors of the anthology thought so too. I hate formulas. Blech. If I can’t write or tell stories the way I want to, then who needs it. We have enough formulaic work out there.

    • Posted September 20, 2011 at 2:34 am | Permalink

      Aww, thank you so much for the positive feedback, Pennie! =)

  5. Posted September 19, 2011 at 3:43 am | Permalink

    Wonderful, inspiration advise. Definitely something to keep in mind, and something I needed to read today.

  6. Posted September 19, 2011 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

    Stu you are so inspirational. I really loved how you suggest considering what you would do for free as a means to find something that you are passionate about. I think more people need to find the courage to follow their hearts as you do. My hat is off to you sir!

    • Posted September 20, 2011 at 2:44 am | Permalink

      I loved that piece of advice too, Bonnie! =) Thanks so much for your thoughts on this post! =)

  7. Posted September 20, 2011 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    Great story Sam and Stu. It’s so wonderful to get to know people better though these amazing series’. Stu co greats on doing what you love. I think that is what everyone aspires to.

    • Posted September 22, 2011 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

      Aww thanks, Lalia! =) I love having this venue to share others’ stories and Stu *is* truly inspiring! =)

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