Meg Kelley was a complex woman. She was a chemist, a gymnast, an actress, an artist, a designer who could envision a set worthy of Broadway and then wield the power tools to make that vision a reality. She was a calligrapher and a costumer with the imagination and abilities to bring her designs to life.
But Meg’s true superpower, the skill set that brought all these gifts together so the result became far greater than the sum of its parts, was that she was a drama mama.
I remember watching her wrangle hundreds of raw-nerved high school students waiting to perform scholarship auditions at a Georgia Thespian Conference in Columbus. To add to the tension, there were torrential rains and intermittent tornado warnings. She gently calmed the kids and brought order to the chaos. And she made it look so darned easy.
When her daughter, Mary, was a student in North Hall High School’s drama program, Mary decided to form a small improvisation group as her part of senior leadership project.
If acting is hard, improvisation, if it’s done well, is hard to the 100th power. Imagine standing on a stage without a script. All you have are vague directions (“You are on a train in a tunnel when the lights go out.”) and a partner waiting for you to throw out the first line. The pressure is on.
Mary asked her mom to help out with some of the exercises since she had studied improvisation in college. That’s when the magic began. Meg stayed on after the project ended, directing the group that eventually became Improv This. The troupe is now well into its sixth year.
The rules for her improv stage were inviolate: No profanity. No violence. No potty humor. And no death. Meg said having a character die was taking the easy way out. She insisted that the characters on her improv stage should be alive, honest and genuine.
Writer, director and actress Tina Fey started out as an improv performer and she’s never strayed far from those roots. In her book “Bossypants,” she wrote that the first law of improv was to always say “Yes.” Then she continues: “The second rule of improvisation is not only to say yes, but YES, AND. You are supposed to agree and then add something of your own. If I start a scene with ‘I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,’ and you just say, ‘Yeah …’ we’re kind of at a standstill. But if I say, ‘I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,’ and you say, ‘What did you expect? We’re in hell.’ ... now we’re getting somewhere.
“To me YES, AND means don’t be afraid to contribute. It’s your responsibility to contribute. Always make sure you’re adding something to the discussion. Your initiations are worthwhile.”
Last year, our daughter, Rachel, won a scholarship for a speech she’d written about overcoming obstacles. Meg was heavy on her mind as she penned these words, “Our improv team has an incredible coach. She has taught us how to be strong performers, and not to force humor, but to let a character just live, because life is funny. But most importantly, she has taught us the platinum rule of improv: Yes, and ...
“Whether she knows it or not, she is teaching us the most valuable life lesson we will ever learn: to be optimistic, to trust and accept one another and offer our own strengths as a source of support for our teammates in a time of deer-in-the-headlights stage fright. And now it’s time for us to return the favor.
“She was recently diagnosed with stage four colon cancer. I’ve never been one to say, ‘That’s not fair,’ but it’s not. Yet she continues coming to practice ... coaching us through her fatigue. When we were asked if anyone would be willing to bring her family dinner while she recovered from surgery, every single voice rang out, ‘Yes, and.’”
Meg’s valiant fight against cancer ended earlier this week. Her Facebook and CaringBridge pages are filled with tributes from students whose lives she touched. Current team member Chris Bellows wrote, “Meg prepared us for the next show, but also for the road ahead. Thank you, Meg Kelley, for inspiring us all with your wisdom and love, and for making us the people we are today.”
Former team co-captain Morgan Braddy wrote from Colorado, “You helped so many of us make it through the bumpy road that is high school. You loved all of us in different and special ways. You taught us to love one another and trust ourselves. ... I have been so blessed to have you in my life.”
Meg’s legacy lives on. Her daughter, Mary, is returning to coach the team. Dozens of students have gone out in the world, more confident and able to think on their feet because drama mama Meg Kelley came their way.
I could end by wishing Meg Godspeed on her final journey with hopes that she rest in peace. I could wish her b’shalom and say that her memory will be a blessing. But instead, I think I’ll just say YES, AND. That says it all.
Teressa Glazer is a Gainesville businesswoman. Her column appears biweekly on Fridays and at gainesvilletimes.com/viewpoint.