Improv Classes Cure


By Michele Bacigalupo

Photo courtesy of Andrew Currie.

Improvisational acting classes may actually improve more social situations than we thought.

The Chicago branch of Second City, a sketch comedy and improv acting organization, hosted its first wellness week from Oct 5 to 11. The wellness week promotion included courses such as Improv for Anxiety, Improv for ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder), and Humor Doesn’t Retire: Improv for Older Adults.

Abby Mager, Second City’s Director of Business Development, tells BTR that the event was “a huge success.” Over 200 people attended classes throughout the week.

At Second City, Improv for Anxiety is an interactive course designed to be both educational and therapeutic for people with moderate social anxiety disorder. The class also benefits individuals diagnosed with other mental illnesses, such as Asperger’s syndrome, panic disorder, OCD, general anxiety, or depression.

Classes incorporate a cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) style of learning which “focuses on helping people change their maladaptive thinking and behavior.” Concurrently weekly support groups also complement these classes.

Improv for Anxiety bootcamp has already been running at Second City for over two years, and many students graduated after completing five levels of improvisation. Mager says that some students from the Anxiety program continue on to gain admittance to Second City’s Improv and Music Conservatories.

The study of improvisation proves it to enhance confidence and promote self-acceptance. Second City provides a fun, welcoming environment where people are encouraged to be themselves and try new things. Students are also granted full permission to act as silly as they please.

“Improv is so much more than being funny. It teaches you to take a risk, and remove that pesky internal voice that tells you that you ‘can’t do something,’” says Mager.

An improv class setting encourages the practice and development of many skills. Students exercise listening and observation techniques. They learn how to think creatively, make decisions quickly, and work together as a team. Participants brand new to the performing arts swiftly acquire strategies employed by both actors and comics alike.

ASD is characterized by a lack of social communication and interaction, and individuals who suffer from ASD often display repetitive patterns of behavior. Improvisation cultivates one’s ability to empathize, which is often a hurdle for many with anxiety and ASD. The class heightens a sense of self-awareness, including increased attention to emotions.

“Our main goal was simply to open our doors to people who may not have thought that Second City was a place for them. Trying improv for the first time–whether you have social anxiety or not–can be scary!” explains Mager.

Mager insists that improv is not just for actors or comedians. Improv is for everybody. It becomes an enjoyable game where grown-ups get to act like children again. Perhaps the greatest draw is the team atmosphere.

“It’s an ensemble-based art form,” says Mager. “You always have someone else’s back, and they always have yours.”

Talent exists across all types of personalities. In fact, many successful performers actually struggled with anxiety throughout their careers. Jim Carrey was painfully shy as a kid, but used humor to confront the inhibition, rather than allowing it to hold him back. His innate ability for performing made the kids at school laugh, and he grew popular with his class clown antics.

“There’s no formula for being a good comedian,” says Mager.

The ASD and Anxiety classes foster communication and self-exploration. Students learn to “neutralize toxic thinking and develop relaxation responses.” Since everyone in the class has some form of mental illness, students are motivated to share their stories and support one another. It’s an ideal environment for participants to feel comfortable and free to socialize. Plus, everybody can be expected to have a decent sense of humor.

Wellness week may be over, but the classes at Second City continue to thrive. Registration for Improv for Anxiety and Improv for ASD are ongoing. Find out more about how to get involved with Second City on their website.