The Healing Potential of Improvisation | Chicago Stories

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Improvise in the unknown

For people with anxiety, improvisation may seem like the last thing that would be appealing. After all, improvisation involves a lot of uncertainty – going on stage without a plan and inventing things on the spot. But since 2014 at The Second City, there are classes specially designed for people with anxiety.

Viola Spolin publishes her theater plays

For Becca Barish, a licensed clinical social worker and former wellness program manager at The Second City, one of the reasons improvisation has therapeutic potential is that it’s an art form. non-judgmental rooted in support. For example, “Yes, and…” is a common rule in improvisation, which means that one performer accepts another’s contribution and builds on it. This kind of supportive atmosphere can be beneficial for people looking to manage their anxiety in a safe space.

“The course itself creates an opportunity for people to be able to practice some of those things that they could generally avoid and to do it in an often fun way,” said Barish.

Barish said the classes aren’t that different from the typical Second City improv class. Students do warm-ups, group exercises and scenes. But they also make games that “are specifically chosen to address the main triggers of social anxiety,” according to the website.

For example, an improvisation game called “Story of Words at a Time” involves the group making up a story, each person proposing one word at a time.

How much do I stress about the next word, or feel like I have to be in control, or feel like I don’t want to be the only one making decisions? … The more we understand how we react to these exercises, the more we can understand some of the ways our anxiety manifests in other contexts.

Becca Barish, Certified Clinical Social Worker

Students can also role-play in class, using scenarios in which their social anxiety may be triggered, such as conflict with a landlord, a conversation with a stranger, or a presentation at work.

Part of the reason these courses provide a safe space, said Barish, is that “the stakes are pretty low.”

“At the end of the day, if the scene doesn’t go well, maybe it’s just like, ‘OK, well, now I can know that I didn’t die because of this.’ Then they can use those same skills in other ways, ”said Barish.

The Second City offers other courses in its wellness program designed to create a community for people who might generally feel left out of the world of improv, including courses for adults over 55, people autistic people and people with Parkinson’s disease. All of this, Barish said, actually goes back to the origins of improvisation.

“If you look back at Hull House and look at what they were doing with adults who didn’t speak English or were new to America, they were like, ‘Let’s play and see what comes out,'” said Barish. . “We are really going back to the roots of what [improv] Was founded in. “

Barish said she liked to see the transformation in students from entering first class to last class when they have “lost so many of those layers” and feel more comfortable being them- same.

“It opens you up to really explore the depths of what you’re capable of, whether it’s by diagnosis, age, or some circumstance. I think being able to connect with other people to share this vulnerability and normalize experiences is so wonderful.

Permission to experience joy: drama plays in the Cook County Jail

Women holding hands in Cooky County Jail
The Piven Theater Workshop’s EPIC program includes a meditation component in addition to theater games. Photo: Courtesy of Piven Theater Workshop

In his book, Improvisation for the Theater, Viola Spolin writes that to act “requires an environment in which the experience can take place, a person free to experiment and an activity that elicits spontaneity”.

A theater program in Cook County Jail strives to create a space where incarcerated women have the opportunity to tap into their spontaneity and sense of play.

“People in prison have very little control over their day and a student can come into our classroom with a whole host of stressors,” said Jennifer Green, artistic director of the Piven Theater Workshop, which manages the program.

Based in Evanston, the Piven Theater Workshop runs several programs for populations underrepresented in the arts, including neurodiverse individuals and children placed in the foster care system, among others.

Piven’s Cook County Jail program, called Ensemble Play in Cook County Jail (EPIC), teaches improvisation and drama games to women awaiting trial, with each term ending with a performance before an audience of other women in prison, staff and outside artists.

Classes are ‘trauma informed’, which means they recognize that everyone has a personal story that they bring with them to class. As Piven’s Green says: “Everyone’s voice is important. Everyone has their place at the table. We reach people where they are.

The transformative power of improvisation

The transformative power of improvisation

According to Green, each class begins with a component of meditation and self-reflection to help women move from prison to a creative space. After that, the classes are like any other drama class. The group warms up and plays games that develop skills such as listening, empathy, and collaboration. The class ends with a reflection, which often involves writing a poem, allowing women to check their emotions before returning to their bleachers.

“The game process in general takes you out of your head, brings you out of self-judgment, and gets you into an act of collaboration and creation,” Green said. “This very simple principle of ‘Yes, and …’ can take you somewhere and give you permission to create, give you permission to experience joy.”

For Green, the “genius” of theater games is that they are, at the base, simple playground games without social hierarchy. It can be heartwarming to create something new and to have the freedom to explore “our authentic selves”. This makes them useful in just about any setting, including the incarceration system.

They’re very accessible and they’re very democratic, and they don’t expect them to come in with a great deal of theater knowledge … that curiosity, that connection, that desire to communicate is something that is just wired for. to be. a human.

Jennifer Green, The Piven Theater Workshop

Green said the Piven Theater Workshop is keen to explore how skills that emerge from theater games could also be used for conflict de-escalation, although this program is still in its very early stages.

“One thing we noticed while we were in jail was the way we witness the women in our program – exploring games and exploring their voices – we see the guards in the room finding smiles on their faces. faces, ”Green said. . “Building connections within this power structure can be very powerful. “

Improving the quality of life of people living with memory loss

For people who have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, there is a lot of uncertainty as to what the future holds. A partnership between Northwestern’s Mesulam Center for Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease and the Lookingglass Theater Company aims to address this uncertainty.

Since 2010, the group, called The Memory Ensemble, has been exploring how improvisation can improve the quality of life for people with Alzheimer’s and dementia. (The group has since suspended their workshops due to the pandemic.)

Dr Darby Morhardt, associate professor at the Mesulam Center, had been researching the quality of life of patients with dementia for years. Dr Christine Mary Dunford, director of the School of Drama and Music at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a member of the ensemble at Lookingglass, approached her to work together.

“It was really just… another opportunity for people with dementia to come together, to focus on their strengths and not on what they are losing,” Morhardt said.

In a co-authored article, Morhardt and Dunford write that people with memory loss “are often mistakenly viewed as unable to engage in creative or performative activities, develop skills, form community, or profit. of life “. But The Memory Ensemble questions this assumption. This helps create a sense of connection and belonging for patients and helps them understand the changes they are going through while enjoying their life creatively.

Workshops hosted by The Memory Ensemble teach what Dunford describes as fundamental improvisation skills: saying “Yes and…”, listening to your partner and being in the moment. Their purpose is reflected in a motto recited in each class.

I am a creative person. When I am feeling anxious or uncertain, I can stop, breathe, observe, and use my imagination.

The motto of the Ensemble de la Mémoire

For 90 minutes, participants meet in a room with an experienced teacher as well as a person representing the clinical component of the program. After warming up, participants then go through a series of games, some of which are adapted from Viola Spolin, which focus on improvising the environment, characters and relationships. The workshop ends with a “check-out” to see how the moods of the participants have changed throughout the class.

“In our early research, we learned that the program improved mood, improved feelings of self-efficacy, and participants spoke of an increased sense of normalcy when in the room,” Dunford said. .

Dunford said humor is never the participants’ goal when improvising.

“But it’s still there,” Morhardt added.

“We always end up laughing really hard… It’s very much about the intention of the Spolin exercises,” said Dunford, “We just try to be in the moment with the person, and humor comes a lot.”

So why use improvisation for people with memory loss? For starters, it doesn’t require memorization. There is no “correct” way of doing things and, as Spolin anticipated when she developed her theater sets, this does not require theater experience.

Dunford highlighted several other elements of the workshops that are beneficial, including being in a community with people experiencing something similar.

“We almost never approach memory loss directly. It’s just a condition of membership, ”said Dunford. “They have a sense of belonging and for a short time, a certain normalcy.”

Being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia involves stepping into the unknown, which is often quite frightening.

“But in our program, we do it intentionally to introduce that moment of anxiety and then to work with people,” Dunford said. “It allows people who have uncertainty in their day-to-day life to artificially walk into more uncertainty and then practice ways to be successful through it.”


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