I’m lucky to live in Chicago for many reasons, but one is because it’s one of the premier improv destinations in the United States. I’ve met people who moved here for the improv scene and because they wanted to make it in improv. We have the legendary Second City Theater, the iO Theater, and the Annoyance Theater. And those are just the big ones–not even touching upon the plethora of small theaters and clubs where you can see improv shows every night for free or a nominal donation of a few dollars. I guess it’s no wonder that, as a naturally curious person, I eventually wound my way through the Second City circuit. I know this sounds like hyperbole, but it truly was life-changing for me.
Some people think they wouldn’t be good at improv because it’s about “being funny.” It’s not. Improv is often described as the ability to react without thinking. The result of improv often ends up being funny because you start out with absurd or comical scenarios, and because people are usually funnier when they’re trying not to be. If you’re always thinking ahead and plotting a funny line, chances are you won’t be any good at improv. First, you won’t be truly listening to your scene partner, because you’ll be caught up in your own head the entire time they’re speaking. And secondly, chances are that line will no longer be funny in context, or even make sense, when it comes time for your response.
The more you can let go of your personality and your ego, the better you will become at improv. It’s almost like you simply become a conduit through which communication flows. It’s a skill that works at un-teaching years of social conditioning: thinking before you speak, giving off your best impression, planning ahead. Viola Spolin, whose work Second City’s basic courses were largely modeled after, started out using her theater games and techniques with children, who are natural receptors for improv. Kind of like that saying about all children being artists and only later growing out of it, all children are improvisers until they learn otherwise. They’re gradually taught as they grow up to conform their speech and behavior to societal norms.
You can imagine what a gift improv can be for someone with social anxiety, and in fact there actually is a whole track at Second City devoted to just that, “Improv For Social Anxiety.” One of the gifts that improv can give you is the ability to get out of your own head and to stop over-thinking everything. One of the students in the improv class I took transferred over from Improv For Social Anxiety. He said he had come to believe that all improv was actually improv for social anxiety.
Regarding the impact that improv has had on my own mental health, it is one of the few things I have studied that I feel actually re-wired my brain in some ways. I would probably get in trouble for voicing a lot of my unfiltered thoughts, but I find myself noticing them and laughing at them more often now. I find I’m a better listener, and wait until a speaker is finished to react to them instead of formulating a response ahead of time. I feel like I’m overall more flexible and less rigid, better equipped to think on my feet. If something doesn’t work out as planned, I’m better at managing my panic and brainstorming other solutions, from Plan B to Plan Z. And if I have a public speaking gig or interview, I feel I am better prepared to react to unexpected situations or speak off the cuff. I am not trying to say at all that I am fantastic at any of these things or have become some kind of superhuman communicator, but improv had a measurable influence on my thinking, most notably lending it a fluidity and flexibility that works wonders in helping me mitigate anxiety. That’s why I’d like to salute improv, and the impact it can have on mental health, on #MentalHealthMonday.
P.S.: I just have to note, as well, that I must have had some kind of body memory or subconscious spirit guiding me today, because I actually started writing this blog post last week and just today this photograph of my Second City improv program graduation popped up in my Facebook memories! I was in the midst of the most severe depressive episode of my life at the time, but I was determined to make it to that final performance, and I did.