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A group of players takes the stage. They ask the audience for a random suggestion: an object, phrase, name—anything goes. The players then take this suggestion and, through hours of training, observation, and listening, create an entirely new and unrehearsed show filled with characters and scenes constructed on the spot.
This is improvisational comedy.
Though the quick wit and resourcefulness of those on stage may seem inaccessible to those who watch, improv revolves around one core tenet that many people can relate to, or even long for: acceptance.
Improv training teaches students to accept their fellow players for who they are and what they bring to the scene. Each idea put forth is immediately welcomed by the other participants–no matter how simple or ridiculous it may be. Students are taught not only to accept what is contributed to the scene, but also to build upon it in kind, creating characters, attitudes, energy, and reality out of that first initiation. The end result is an environment of approval where no thought is rejected or passed over.
The manifestation of a space where each person and idea is inherently accepted and valued marks improv’s main draw. The fundamental concept aims to block out the cynical world and inject its inhabitants—students, teachers, and even audience members—with the mindset that everything goes.
Erin Maloney, an active participant in the New York improv scene, initially viewed it as merely an acting exercise meant to loosen people up, but became enchanted after seeing a show firsthand.
“I came out of there like I just saw a magic show,” Maloney tells BTR. “I’d never really seen it like that before, and I just had to learn how. I didn’t even question it. It was definitely like a lighting bolt effect.”
Maloney has been enthralled with improv ever since, completing a number of courses at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater and playing on indie teams throughout the city. She says her favorite aspects are the relationships developed between the people and ideas around her.
“It’s all about support. It’s the fact that I can see something and go, ‘How can I make this better? How can I help out this person?’” Maloney says.
Maloney also co-hosts Psychomedy, a podcast where she interviews fellow comedians and improvisers about the psychological effects of comedy on their everyday lives.
“It’s something I’m super interested in, because so many people use it as a coping mechanism,” says Maloney, who admits to suffering from anxiety.
Though one might associate the psychological aspects of comedy with depression and sadness—think of the typical “sad clown” trope—the positive characteristics of improv have also been explored. A 2013 article published in Frontiers in Psychology draws the connection between the desired acceptance amongst improv players and unconditional positive regard (UPR), a concept developed by noted psychologist Carl Rogers. UPR is the practice of accepting and respecting others as they are without judgement or evaluation. However, UPR is not action-based, such as nodding, smiling, being agreeable, or even liking someone; it’s the feeling and attitude of placing value in others and their choices.
Rogers believed strongly in the concept of UPR and its value in healthy human interactions and relationship building. Theatrical improv shows many of the same characteristics, so it’s no surprise psychologists have looked to improv as a possible form of therapy for individuals with social anxiety. The School of Laughter, founded in London by veteran comedian Nat Tsolak, offers therapeutic improve courses as a means to help people find laughter and lightness in their everyday lives.
“The main idea is getting people to be able to laugh at themselves, to be spontaneous,” Tsolak tells BTR. “Not filtering as much, not saying the most obvious thing. When you’re anxious, you freeze. You can’t think, you don’t know what to say.”
According to Tsolak, one of the biggest hurdles for students with anxiety is to unlearn what they’ve been taught about communicating and expressing themselves. Part of it is accepting not only what other people put forward, but trusting in yourself and your flaws.
“Primarily, it’s allowing yourself to fail in front of people, and that there’s nothing wrong, especially when you make a mistake, or things don’t go the way you expect,” Tsolak says.
He maintains that the use of various improv games to overcome barriers of anxiety works for many of his students, but doesn’t provide a cure-all for their social problems.
“The biggest challenge is it’s not a magic cure,” Tsolak says. “It’s something that you have to be engaging with on a regular basis and applying improv rules in your day-to-day.”
Integrating the lessons of acceptance from improv into everyday life doesn’t always prove to be an easy transition, but key lessons like eye contact, intent listening, and use of the phrase “Yes, and…” in conversation work well in many social settings.
“The improv rules are really a wonderful guideline for life,” Tsolak says. “My main interest is how we can apply those rules to our lives and share with other people.”
Though the process of using improv as therapy is fairly new, a number of other organizations also understand its value. Chicago’s Panic/Anxiety Resource Center has partnered with world renowned improv school and theatre Second City to offer Improv for Anxiety classes for adults and teens. At Vanderbilt University, the school’s Psychological & Counseling Center offers an Improv Social Skills Group each semester for students who struggle with interpersonal interaction. The New York Creative Arts Therapists Group provides a therapeutic improv class designed to “create a supportive and nonjudgmental space for personal development.”
According to Maloney, the improv community maintains that attitude of support as it grows, and supports those looking to be a part of it with a place to feel at home.
“It’s a great door that’s always open,” Maloney says. “When I started doing improv, I started hanging around people with the same love and aspirations and goals. We’re all just people doing this thing that we love. It’s a community that you can always come back to, but everyone sort of remains their own person.”
Though improv is communally based and practiced, it’s that idea of individuality and being comfortable and assured of oneself that Tsolak believes is the key for individuals to overcome their faults and misgivings, both in improv and in life.
“We live in a very individual society,” Tsolak says. “We experience the separateness of life, and we have to find our own answers—how we connect with the group, how we connect with other people.”
Maloney agrees that the experience of improv brought her more self-knowledge and awareness than she ever would have thought possible.
“It taught me more about myself than maybe being in school did,” she says.