When I began writing about improv with regard to mental illness my hypothesis was the improvisers use performances as a means of working out emotional issues in a confrontational, though non damaging way. What I found when I began interview my friends and peers in the community is that improvising means so much more.
I began therapy after a tough breakup and was diagnosed with a type of depression called Dysthymia. This depression displays as a prolonged slump or general discontent. Though initially this was a shock, an explanation for the tension and unrest I carry with me made perfect sense. In one session my therapist asked why I started improv. Though he likely wasn’t prepared for how long my answer was going to be, that story speaks volumes about the role improv fills in my life.
I began improv three years ago. It was a time when I had become disenchanted with my job and though my social life was full with ultimate Frisbee, softball, and kickball loneliness endured. When I began taking improv classes, it was the one place I was given full permission to act silly. To some extent it still is. Improv is a creativity pressure valve in what felt like the machinery of my life. My relationship with improv then matured into a means of facing my fears of public speaking, being on stage, acting stupid, failing in public, talking to strangers, looking dumb, talking to women, not knowing what to say, and so on. Clearly I had some anxieties to work through, and still do. When things are at their darkest however, improv is a way to step outside the emotional burden I carry with me, and be present. When you’re on stage, rapidly responding to the offers of your fellow improviser there’s no room for regretting your last line, or planning your next scene, there is only the present, the scene, your character. I may never fully internalize the life lessons I take from improv, but facing my anxieties through improv is a start.
To some, being on stage comes with butterflies and anxiety. To Brett it’s just the opposite. The stage is a safe place, because it is the place where your actions lack consequences. Yes, there are bad shows, but practicing letting go of those reinforces his ability to move on. Brett has been acting and improvising since he was a child. And while being on stage doesn’t come with the novelty or discovery of many newer improvisers, performance has been so intertwined with his development he could not imagine life without it. Something else that’s been intertwined with his personality is bipolar depression. It may take the form of manic high functioning states in which he appears to be very productive and track. Or it may take the form of angry fractious lows which may make him hard to be around, though all of which he has been acting and improvising. With such a breadth of intense emotional states I asked Brett if he views his characters as heightened versions of himself or trying to step into something outside himself. Routinely drawing from personal experiences can be both wearing and dangerous, he says, and prefers to build new characters from the ground up. He starts with a stereotype, and then breaks that character’s psyche down until just the essence remains. Finally he adds emotional layer upon emotional layer so that the next line of dialogue is the most logical and unequivocal phrase that a character would say. There’s something poetic in that method. Regardless of where we start, our character is built by the pieces we knowingly or unknowingly choose.
Though Brett is unable to afford therapy, or the medication he has been prescribed, working out and being on stage provide an alternative means of treatment which keep his mental illness in check. As a writer and performer by trade, the challenge now, he states, is separating which parts of his creative self are the disease and which parts are truly his own. That is not an easy question, but he is on his way to figuring it out.
Ryan came to improv after having battling his more than his fair share of addiction and marriage woes. Though therapy and treatment always had always been a means of healing, Ryan says that after starting improv there was a distinct shift in his relationship with fear. To that point when dealing with stressful situations Ryan would either battle through the fear, or bail. Improv opened the door to building awareness around these feelings and then letting them go. Confronting the concerns of being on stage, through the lens of objectivity dispels them. In essence there is nothing useful about a fear of going on stage. Coupling this with studying Buddhism has shown that the majority of fears are not useful. As in life, there will always be areas of improv which Ryan has discomfort with. These days that is musical improv. However acknowledging that, and being ok with it, is a huge step forward.
Ryan’s relationship with improv continues to change and evolve. He believes that exercises in therapy, group therapy meetings, his study of Buddhism, and performing improv all actualize the same goals. Improv in particular however is a means of bringing those lessons into reality. The road is long, and fraught with fear and self-deprecation. Ryan is moving forward and being comfortable with himself in the process.
In improv you accept what happens to you, and you move on. With this statement Ashley captured a main tenant of improv, and personal mantra. Whether it was the challenges of growing up in a family life afflicted with mental illness, or the trials of teaching aggressive students in an underserved school, Ashley has no shortage of challenges. However recognizing that the path forward is through acceptance was a tremendous step. Having suffered depression since an early age, Ashley developed a vibrant imagination. Though this provided an escape, doing so prevented her from dealing with her own emotions. By contrast improv forces her to be present and in the moment. When you are in a scene, she says, you have to react. You don’t have the time to doubt yourself. There’s no room to be an introvert, sitting back analyzing the scene. Cutting everything else away, you are left with owning the emotions you bring to a character. You are left with honesty.
Ashley recently switched therapists, and was told that she must keep doing improv. Her new therapist recognized by forcing her to be present and learn perspective, Ashley has been given the opportunity to see progress with her depression. After all, Ashley realized, no one will be a harsher critic than herself. Taking pride in her work is not something that will come easily, but like in life, you must strive to accept what happens and move on.
Carissa came to improv 12 years ago as an escape. A self-proclaimed perfectionist, improv put her in a place where she lacked control. More importantly, however, there was no space to worry about her weight. The freedom from anxiety about how she was perceived by others, she says, grounded her. In her life therapy was geared towards healing her, but rather than helping, at times fueled her self-doubt. After she began working with improv and therapy simultaneously, she was able to get out of her own head and begin feeling connected. On stage you have no idea what’s going to happen, and thus you have to find acceptance of the offers your fellow improvisers make, she says. Moreover to even realize the subtleties of your fellow improvisers statements, forces you to listen actively. On a deeper level this makes you mindful of things outside of yourself.
Years later, for Carissa it’s still about facing fears about letting go of control and personal anxiety. Armed with the lessons from improv and therapy, like acceptance of the fact like on stage, in life you can’t screw it up, she is getting better equipped to move on all the time.
Each individual is in a much different place, overcoming unique challenges, the common themes that run through their stories are empowering. Improv teaches us to be present. Doing so frees us from being anxious about the future, or obsessing about the past. Simply being on stage and reacting immediately leaves no room for these things. Accepting challenges which come our way. Facing our fears by acknowledging them, exposing them for what they are, and recognizing them as reflections of our own self-doubt, disables them. Similarly it teaches to live with perspective on our past, present, and future.
When I set out to write this article I was unprepared for the access people would share with me. It has taken me much longer to write then I expected because I don’t feel like I have done justice to these amazing stories. Just like in improv, I must accept that this article is not perfect. It will be my best attempt at capturing the role improv has played in these our lives, and will hopefully reach out to those who might be suffering similar anxieties. However, if it just winds up in a forgotten dark corner of the internet, that will be ok too.