Performing requires confidence and focus. And performing improvisational comedy requires extra of both because the players make up the dialogue, movements
It's basically an ordinary social interaction, but onstage. A simple conversation with a complete stranger or a close friend happens in the moment.
"I've had so many people tell me that improv helped with their anxiety," says Lindsay Goldapp, the managing director of the nonprofit Stomping Ground Comedy Theatre. "I think it's just that nonjudgmental thing where I can be myself and there's no wrong in improv. So there's something comforting in that."
Improvisational comedy is designed to take the performers out of their heads and teach them to react in the moment. Goldapp practices improv and also has anxiety.
Stomping Ground will soon open its own theater space, where it will teach basic improv comedy techniques to people with anxiety as part of its Improv For Life mental health program.
Andrea Kyprianou Baum, a licensed counselor who serves as the Improv For Life program director, says anxiety serves a natural protection from threats, "but there are some perceived threats that aren't there because we have this higher level of thinking."
At the beginning of the class, Baum takes the temperature of each student's fingertip with an electronic thermometer. Baum says a lower body temperature is one of the ways our bodies react to anxiety. Several students saw their temperatures rise by the end of the exercises.
"One thing that helped for me was to see that it was measurable, so I could see when I have that blood flow going," one of the students says. "I'm going to use some of this with my class at school."
Goldapp and Baum then take the class through some basic warm-ups and typical improv performance exercises. In one exercise, students are asked to pretend they are meeting an old friend they haven't seen in a long time or an ex-lover they'd rather never see again. Goldapp, who participated, says afterward that it had made her uncomfortable.
"It's like a workout," she says. "I feel better after I do it. I'm not a confident person, but I'm the managing director of a theater, so I have to pretend I'm a confident person, and pretending almost makes me that."
The students also pretend to be experts giving TED Talks on all sorts of topics they know nothing about, like ant farms and nuclear physics. They have to pick up the dialogue where their scene partners leave off when Goldapp taps them on the shoulder to start talking.
"The more you practice at this, the better you can get at this," Baum says. "When we can tell our mind that there's nothing in the environment to have a reaction about, we can turn off that anxiety."
The class ends with a more character-driven exercise. The students are paired off and told to conjure characters in their minds and embody that character in simple situations, like saying hello to a stranger who skates by them and seeing a painting for the first time.
One student pretends to be a dazed hippie who sees the epicenter of the universe in the painting's green wooden mosaic. Another shows complete indifference. Another student is brave enough to approach the painting and turn it on its side, only to see the shape of human genitalia and quickly turn it around again.
By acting silly and saying absurd things we wouldn't normally say, we discover that many of our fears are unfounded,
"This exercise is not about trying to be clever or funny,"
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One of the students who participated in the painting exercise says she sees how it could help her in everyday life.
"I really want people to like me, and it does bother me if I don't think someone does, and that particular game really hit home with me," the student says. "I hope it will help me to not take it personally."
Although the class isn't designed to teach students how to perform comedy, every exercise ended with the class laughing.
"Improv's about staying in the moment and putting yourself in situations that may normally cause anxiety, but it's a playful and safe environment," Baum says. "You're exposed to things you tend to avoid and might be stressed about, and it might become a positive experience."