Updated: Jan 20, 2021
Improv is a unique challenge, a unique joy and a unique intervention. I’ve experienced the challenges and joys of it for over 25 years as a player, a fan, a business owner and a teacher. I’ve had a number of great and a few not so good teachers along the way. It is very possible to ruin the experience for people if the wrong person is at the helm. Two pearls of wisdom I heard along my path ring out to me right now:
“Improv isn’t just for comedy. It’s a way of life.” A teacher at the famed Groundlings school in L.A. said this in passing while I was headed to class. Unfortunately, he wasn’t my teacher. A woman named Kim was and I definitely count her as one of the people who nearly ruined it for me.
“Improv doesn’t do what I think you guys want it to do,” Liz Allen, from The Second City (Las Vegas training center), said this to me. Liz, unlike, Kim, is a hero for me. She kicked the door wide open on the possibilities for improv - like teaching, health and philosophy - all while keeping it open wide to the comedy aspects, too - which I do adore. What she meant, I think, was that we, in that particular group, were trying to force improv to our will. That’s a mistake because improv is a force. You can tap into it, you can build from it, but if you try to bottle it, take it with you and use it for your selfish purposes, you’ll likely end up with an empty bottle and no one watching your dumb one man show.
The perennial problem with improv is describing what it is - because it’s less a thing than an expression, which puts it in the “describe love” quandary.
The clinical definition in the pilot paper on improv as an intervention for Parkinson’s goes like this: “Improvisation is the ability to produce novel responses on the spur of the moment. It evokes acting on the unexpected and unknown so that preplanned or prescriptive movements or responses are replaced by the possibility of novel autonomously selected responses.”
That’s a fine scientific definition. But does it help you know how to do it? Or make you want to do it? Maybe, if your mind works that way. The difficulty in teaching such a squishy subject is balancing information with experience. Too much information, and you kill the joy. Too much experience, and you leave people wondering, was that “just” for laughs - thereby missing the true clinical effects.
What are those clinical effects? Fair question. Improvisation can reduce stress, anxiety and depression. That alone should be enough, especially because it is non-invasive, fast-acting and deemed very enjoyable by the participants in the Northwestern study as well as every class I’ve ever taught. But is there more? I think so. The early returns tell me we’re just scratching the surface on the possibilities.
I just led my fifth online class for YAX on Friday, April 17, 2020. I was so pleased to see participants start to “get it” - with the deep, humble understanding that their “it” is going to be as unique as each of them is. There had been a fair amount of hand wringing up until that class from a few in the group. There were fears like, “I don’t get it”, “What does this mean?” and “I’m not sure this is for me”. After the class, there was laughter, gratitude and a quick bunch of signups for Monday's class.
If you haven’t tried it yet, I hope you will. If you’re not sure if it’s for you, I encourage you to give it a shot and find out. I’m building toward a new round of clinical trial studies to test the findings of Northwestern’s pilot study and push forward how we measure improvisation’s effect on PD. I guarantee this much: it’s unique, it’s safe and I can all but guarantee you’ll laugh at least once. And if, by chance you don’t, remember there’s no charge for classes and I offer a money back guarantee.