I’d never spoken with Elizabeth before meeting her in a Woodley Park diner. Immediately, though, talking with her was like talking with a good friend I’d bumped into for the first time in a while. Every answer inspired ten follow-ups. We jumped from tangent to tangent. Even sharing revisions for this feature, we got sidetracked, talking about the best DMV coffee shops in which to stage a breakup (any given Starbucks, I’d argue). I know I’ll be excited to read anything and everything she puts out into the world — her fiction, her plays, her essays. Read on, meet Elizabeth, and you’ll be excited for the next time you hear from her, too.
Samuel: What brought you to the DMV?
Elizabeth: I came to DC to get my Master’s degree in Democracy and Governance from Georgetown, right after graduating from Occidental College. I grew up in Philadelphia, but was born in LA, and my family is from LA, which is why I decided to go to Occidental. I always knew, though, that I’d end up back on the East Coast, and I kind of always thought it would be in DC. I would have thought I’d leave eventually, but it doesn’t surprise me that I’ve stayed as my career has taken different turns.
Samuel: Speaking of which – I hear you’ve taken a leap of faith recently and are diving into freelancing as a writer and artist, among other things. Tell me about that!
Elizabeth: I’m in an exciting chapter right now, building a new career centered on teaching introductory improv, developing my own Improv-for-Communications skills training, and freelance writing – primarily creative nonfiction, lifestyle and culture articles, and some short fiction.
I had some incredible experiences in my decade or so working in the international development and national security arena, including traveling to Afghanistan and the Philippines, but I slowly accepted that I just didn’t feel the way I wanted to feel about what I do with my life, frankly.
I realized that I’m happiest when I’m writing, engaged in my longtime passion for improv, or working with people on their own verbal and written communication skills – the latter being my favorite part of my last full-time job doing communications for CNA. I felt such a gnawing pull towards writing creatively on top of my job and improv hobby, and all of that adds up to way more hours than exist in a day. After a lot of serious reflection and discussion with my closest life advisors, I decided: It’s now or never. I quit my job to pursue this experimental chapter.
It’s been a little over six months now, and it’s going well! Learning how to self-manage myself as a freelancer is a steeper learning curve than I anticipated, but as I slowly build my writing portfolio and make inroads with my improv teaching and communications training work, I know I made the right decision.
Samuel: How did you first discover your passion for improv?
Elizabeth: I don’t have a great discovery story. Being a theater nerd in high school, I was aware of improv as an art form. I figured I’d try it someday, and then after graduate school I had a friend of a friend who’d taken a class at Washington Improv Theater [Editor’s note: Where Elizabeth currently teaches classes!] and liked it. That was enough for me. I went in with no knowledge of what I was going to experience, yet really hoping that I would like it. And I did! I felt this sense of calm, of clicking with it, and knew I was going to go all the way with [improv]. That first class was ten years ago; I’ve been doing it consistently for six years.
Samuel: How has that practice influenced your outside-of-improv life?
Elizabeth: Listening is a big thing. You might have a great idea when you step out, but the other person spoke first. No audience wants to see a show where the performers are tussling over what their reality is. We also talk a lot about “following your feet.” If you have an impulse to do something, say something, or end a scene, follow that instinct.
In a lot of ways, that’s what I’m doing right now with this whole experimental chapter. We spend a lot of our lives socialized out of following our instincts. But there’s a balance there.
Samuel: What is your dream DMV day?
Elizabeth: The “dream day” question stresses me out a bit. I want to visit every business in DC and then also win an Oscar.
Samuel: Speak it into existence.
Elizabeth: I’m going to flip the question around. This is a typical day in the dream life I’m building. I wake up at 7:30, have coffee, and listen to a guided meditation. I journal a little bit, and then throw my laptop in my backpack and walk to Tryst or the library in Cleveland Park. I like to get a little exercise and just work in a place that’s not my living room [Editor’s note: The editor’s cat is sitting in his lap while he types this; living rooms have their pros and cons]. I work on articles and send some new pitches to editors. Maybe, I edit a personal essay. My Improv-for-Communications business is thriving in this dream life, so I’m fielding all sorts of RSVPs and updating my yet-to-exist website.
After a yoga class that is magically next door to wherever I am, I grab lunch and a shower at home before I start the next part of my day. I have a delightful and thought-provoking 1:1 chat over more coffee with someone important to me, perhaps one of the rabbis who have been so wonderful to me these past couple years. Obviously, I have something being published, so I work on promoting that, too.
Finally, I have an early-evening improv show. I crush it with the final line, everyone cries, it’s so amazing, and then I head to Friday night services at Sixth & I.
Samuel: How does Judaism show up in your life right now?
Elizabeth: I didn’t grow up very religious. But I had this latent curiosity about spirituality in general, and Judaism within that, but I’d sort of go, and come back, and go, and come back. I really only dug deeper into Judaism two years ago. It was sort of parallel to my experience with improv; I showed up to the first session of Sixth & I’s Basically Jewish class thinking: I don’t know…but I hope I like it! And I really did.
For a lot of my peers, even if their Judaism doesn’t look the same as what they grew up with, there’s a lot of connection to their upbringing and past. It isn’t about that for me. I’m growing into Judaism on my own. It’s about my present, my future. How I want to live. I’m still figuring it all out. Over the past year, I started going to Friday night services at Sixth & I pretty regularly and I’ve really come to love that as a touchstone in my life.
I also got some great advice from Rabbi Ilana about building out some different Shabbat practices in my life, like casual Shabbat dinners with friends new (and less new!). I’m super excited to participate in Beyond The Tent in June. One of the things I’m hoping to reflect on is how to build a Shabbat practice “menu” for myself that includes services and other options.
I’ll be sad about not being able to go to Sixth & I sometimes; I really love going, and I really love the dome they have. It’s such a beautiful comfort to me. I’m always taking pictures, but it’s like taking pictures of the moon. Later, I’m like: These do not look very good. But there have been times when I’m traveling and just looking at those pictures makes me feel comforted.
Samuel: Okay, a few quick ones to end. What’s a new skill you’d like to pick up?
Elizabeth: I aspire to be an incredible power napper. I’m not good at taking naps at all. My vision is that, if I’m an incredible power napper – someone who can just shut down for thirty minutes and wake up like it’s a new day – I feel like I’ll be able to learn even more skills.
Samuel: You power nap, and it unlocks all these other opportunities.
Elizabeth: It’s a gateway skill.
Samuel: What are you proud of right now?
Elizabeth: A lot! I’m going to be part of the Capital Fringe Festival this summer; I’m writing a play about this huge event in DC history that hardly ever gets talked about, the Knickerbocker Theatre collapse. My writing has appeared in Hey Alma, District Fray (twice!), and in Well + Good. In February, I performed with Story District’s Sucker for Love show, which made me super nervous, but I grew so much creatively and personally from it.
I’ll also be a featured storyteller at Sixth & I’s Alternative Shavuot experience [Editor’s note: GatherDC’s own Rabbi Ilana will also be featured as part of their panel of rabbis!].
Samuel: You can invite any three people to Shabbat dinner – who are they, and why?
Elizabeth: Jennifer Garner. She’s like my patron saint, if I can have one. She had a pretend cooking show on Instagram in the early pandemic days that was such a ray of light. I’m not a great cook, so hopefully she would take over. Then, Michelle Obama. No explanation needed. And this is a tough one, but for the third person I’m going to go with Ben Schwartz, who, in this scenario, is obviously also my husband.
Samuel: Finish the sentence for me. When Jews of the DMV gather…
Elizabeth: There’s a lot of learning and laughing.
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