Nicole Zylstra

For Love Or Money

Four Questions.

An improv friend interviewed me for a uni paper. I found my answers particularly insightful 🙂

How did you get involved with improv?

1. Way back in the day, I was dating a guy who did semi-improvised murder mysteries. One night an actor went down at the last minute. Hal and Kathi Kerbes asked Len if his girlfriend was available to to hop in the back of a van and look at a “script” on the way to Edson. That led to 20 years with Shadow Productions. We generally got the script an hour before the show, while we were strapping on our tights and corsets at the Deane House. There was a loose outline of a scene, you tried to remember the three points you had to get out to the audience, and usually something funny happened along the way. There was a ton of audience interaction and I learned how to just be someone else for a long time. I learned a ton about character, maintaining a through line, and working with people up close.

Then 18 years ago I got together with some actor friends who wanted to do an improvised soap opera, like the one they do in Edmonton, Die-Nasty. It started in a now defunct media bar. It then merged with Loose Moose for one season. It then split off and became Dirty Laundry. We did shows in a cafe on Centre Street where we had to build the stage every night on top of a pool table, with the overhead lights clanging around our ears. We could fit about 6 paying customers in the audience. Then we moved to an underground bar that eventually got locked down by the Sheriff. We were briefly at Ceili’s, then we found a permanent home at Lunchbox Theatre, where we still are today, every Monday night. Chris Enright and I are two of the oldest fogeys that have been with the company since its inception.

Much later I met Jason Lewis at bar where I was doing some underground marketing research/ beer espionage for Big Rock Brewery. He asked me to do an improv show with him and Owen for a Circus in Inglewood. We were introduced as “The Patriarchy.” The rest is history 🙂

What were your initial goals as an improviser?

2. My initial goals in improv were pretty vague. I liked doing it. I wanted to do more of it. I wanted to get better at it. When Dirty Laundry started, we called it “bowling night for actors,” because it was a social night out for us, on Mondays when the other theatres were dark. We were all primarily actors who also loved improv, so for us an improvised soap meant that we could really develop our characters over time, which was super fun. I spent a season as a mangey dog in Al Capone’s tunnels in Saskatchewan in the dirty 30s. I was an alien security officer/cruise director in space. I was a ghost one year. For me, I always want to find something to dig into that’s got a few levels to it. I like giving myself silly challenges. Like if you’re playing a ghost, you’re still a real person who just has certain limitations and abilities. Same with being a dog.

The big take away from all of it was simply that improv is acting, just faster. Instead of making decisions over weeks of rehearsals, you make them instantly. Who am I? What do I want? How am I going to get it? And all of that you discover in the moment. When I joined the Kinks, it was a whole new set of challenges, and I am still learning so much from these guys.

What’s your favourite/most important part?

3. My favourite part of improv, aside from the times when something goes brilliantly and it’s all magical and the audience is exploding and you’re like “yaaassss” – aside from that, which is awesome and addictive, my favourite part is the sense of community that is part and parcel of being an improviser. The support that all the players and students offer to each other is amazing. I always tell students that improv teaches you to be a better person, because the same skills that make you a great player are what make you a better human being: listening, supporting your partner, being present in the moment and accepting offers to see where they go. One of my improv heroes of all time is Patty Stiles. When you see her on stage, she is just brilliant, but if you look closely, she is never thinking about herself; she is always making someone else look amazing and supporting the other players. That kind of effortless generosity is something to aspire to, onstage and off. I feel that sort of mutual support all through the Kinkonauts, which is why shows and rehearsals and classes are my favourite part of any week.

What advice would you give yourself way back when?

4. If I could go back and give myself one piece of advice it would be to not take myself too seriously, and to be bold! Take up space and enjoy it! It’s the same advice I try to give myself today. I tend to set high standards for myself, and judge myself pretty heavily, which is a big block I am constantly trying to chip away at. I do much better when I give myself permission to just play and let go of worrying. We did an improv Shakespeare last week, which I dare say may be the best one we’ve ever done, in that it really honoured the medium and played with all the Shakespearean tropes, but it was also just delightful, playful, light and fun. My advice to others is what I tell myself every day: Take risks! The worst that can happen is that you fail. And if you can do that with grace and joy, something amazing is bound to happen.

Everyday Stuntwoman

Many thanks to the Alberta Chiropractic Association. This has been my most recognized role to date! AKA Crazy-eye lady with the floppy red hat.

Nicole Zylstra


Emily Murphy in your ear-mouth!

This is a “binaural experience.” Which means, put your headphones on, you’re about to be taken on a wild immersive ride to, um, a really important time in women’s history. Whoo!

It was probably a gun.

When It’s Okay to Toot

… your own horn.

My first fringe touring experience was with a solo show I had written called Firebird: 220 Horses of the Apocalypse. The Montreal fringe had finished and now a bunch of us who hadn’t made it into the highly competitive Toronto Fringe were in Thunder Bay which was significantly smaller. One of the benefits of a smaller fringe is that all the artists who are travelling westward on the Canadian Association of Fringe Festivals circuit get to know each other really well. I quickly found a nice group of artists and we hung out daily, flyering together, drinking beer in the beer tent together, and seeing each other’s shows. My houses had not been that great – this was my first tour and first solo show and I had a lot to learn yet – and on the final night, my fringe friend posse came down to check out my show.

On the final night, my friends came to see my show. And afterwards in the beer tent, my friend Dave says to me, “Why didn’t you tell me your show was great??! I would have told everyone to come see it! I would have seen it again, myself. I saw Water four times. Do you think I wanted to see Water four times??? Water’s great, don’t get me wrong, but I didn’t need to see it four times when I could have seen your show again. TELL people next time!”

There are two lessons here: One is to comp artists into your shows as much as possible, as early as possible. There are loads of playgoers and festival freaks in each town who are there solely to pay for tickets to see great shows. Whereas your fellow artists are saving all their change in a mason jar just like you are. Artists have something better than a big wallet, they have big mouths. If you have a great show, other artists can’t help but spread the word, which is invaluable advertising and promotion. When they are flyering for their own shows and people ask “What have you heard? What else is good?” they will recommend you, and you’ll quickly become one of THE shows to see. When you have artists in your audience, send a shout out to them at the end of your show and promote their show to your audience. They will do the same for you, and everybody wins.  The same goes (but double) for volunteers. Get the word out to them to see your show in the first few days of the festival, because every playgoer buying a ticket from them for the hot show of the season, is going to ask them what they should see next.

The second lesson I got from that experience is even more important than the first.  It’s that it doesn’t pay to be modest. Literally. Keeping quiet about your own show means you don’t want to make money or have great houses. I thought I was being polite; like a nice Canadian girl I thought telling people how great my show was would mean I was being obnoxious and a braggart. There’s a darker side to it too.  If you tell people you have a great show then you have to deliver the goods. I didn’t tell people anything much about my show and kept it very low key because I wanted to keep people’s expectations low. That way nobody could be disappointed if it wasn’t great. And I couldn’t feel bad for disappointing people. This didn’t do me any favours.

One thing that keeps coming up over and over in my experiences is the need to believe in yourself. BELIEVE that your show is great, because it is. Otherwise you wouldn’t be doing it in the first place. You’re doing it because you know you have something really special to offer people. And then get that message out because really, who doesn’t want to see a great show? You’re doing people a favour by letting them know you have something really cool to share with them. Be confident. By the time everyone else figures out how awesome you really are on their own it might be too late. Give everyone a head start and let them know they don’t want to miss out!

Go ahead. Toot. You know you want to.

Because it’s from you

Before Christmas, his little brother and I were at Ikea and saw a stuffed husky dog. “Wouldn’t Ber like that?” I asked. Fox agreed. “Oh yes, mama!” So we bought the dog and I told Fox that this would be our gift to Beren for Christmas. Fox was so excited to have such a great secret.

On Christmas morning, before all the presents from Santa, I held out the bag to Beren. “This is from Fox and me and the family.” His eyes went super wide. “A husky dog! I love it!” Later that day after all the Christmas chaos had died down, Beren came and found me again. “Mom? I just wanted to say thank you again for the husky. It means so much to me because this is the FIRST GIFT YOU’VE EVER GIVEN ME. All the others are always from Santa, but this is special, because it’s from you.”

I thanked him, gave him a hug, and said I love you. And inside I was falling to pieces, laaaaaughing….

Valentine’s Day – Put in the Work!

“I LOVE you, I’m just not IN LOVE with you.”


I have always thought that being “in love” is delightful, but it is the pre-phase to the work of actual love. That verb, “to love” is active and fluid, and self-motivated. It implies choice, and service, and simpleness. We love our children – we can’t help it – we have strong biological impulses that help fuel that bond. And it’s still not easy all the time. It’s way more work than you think it should be, and yet more rewarding than you ever expected. The love that we share with an equal, on the other hand, with another consenting adult, is more challenging because it involves choice, free will. We can choose to love, or not love. 

I have two friends going through a hard time. He said he would never be able to love her the way she wanted to be loved, because although he loved her, he had never been “in love” with her, and that would forever colour his feelings. I’ve never been able to understand this. As delightful as it is, the state of being “in love” is a trick, like being pushed into a pool and then learning to sink or swim. Maybe they waded in up to their knees instead, and over the course of time found themselves up to their necks. Maybe it’s not as fun as jumping in, with the thrill and shock of surprise. But once you’re treading water, it’s really all the same how you got there, and requires the same amount of work to stay afloat.

Or maybe it’s like having dinner with someone who can’t enjoy their steak because they never ate the calamari first. You can choose to focus on the appetizer you never had, and let the steak turn to ashes in your mouth, mourning the loss of something that was never there. Or you can let those expectations go. So you didn’t have the calamari. Too bad. You know what? This steak is really amazing. If I focus on the steak I’m having right now, I’m actually getting a lot out of it. That’s how I feel about romantic love. 

And if relationships are hard work, they are the best kind. It is work you do out of love, out of service to another – whether that’s your children, or your pets, or your partner. It reaps the best rewards. In Robert Waldinger’s Ted Talk “What Makes a Good Life,” research seems to say couples live longer, but not because of constant butterflies and the uncertainty that comes with being “in love.” Folks live longer, healthier lives when they are in loving relationships where they feel like their partner is supportive – where they feel they have someone they can count on, who will put in the work even when it’s not all fun and games. And all people receive health and happiness benefits from strong family and community relationships. It can be hard to love other people – we are all so imperfect, so annoying sometimes – but to choose to love people with all their faults included means that we can allow ourselves to be loved in return, and we all know what crazies we are deep down, too. 

This Valentine’s Day, let’s all focus on being in the moment with love, wherever it sits with us. And remember that it’s about doing something – about being loving. Whether it’s the love you share with children, or pets, or family, or community, or friends, or the planet, or even someone you were once “in love” with, or someone you never were but love deeply now – let’s all take the time to work a little harder – and love a little more today.

Sending you all love on Valentine’s Day, NZ.

Nicole Zylstra

“You seem like a nice female. You must be very proud.”

Yes, thank you OK Cupid Random. I appreciate your attention. I really am a nice female. Maybe I should be more proud than I am.

Nicole Zylstra

Hello world!

Just hi. Hope you’re doing well, world.

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