Improv Your Mood

Improv Comedy as an Alternative to Therapy

“You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.”
 — Plato

I recently went through a week-long program of family group therapy to cope with a substance abusing parent. Families from across the US flew or drove to the mountains of Pennsylvania to sit in a large room with loved ones and listen as one by one we dealt with our issues, resentments, fears, and anger publicly with the loved one and the rest of the patients.

My siblings and I, despite having dealt privately with our own issues with this parent, were baffled by the process. Never before had we voiced our inner thoughts so bluntly to our dad, let alone with strangers watching. Counselors lined the room, offering coaching to gently push us into saying how we felt to our alcoholic father.

In turn we listened as other mothers, husbands, siblings, and fathers listed to the breakdown of trust, while the patient listened and responded in turn.

In the first few hours I felt I’d become an audience member of Jerry Springer. “You won’t let me see my nephew anymore? You think I’m the one with the problem? Why don’t you take a look at your husband,” one patient told his sister, a girl blessed with an alcoholic brother, husband, and father. Another patient’s middle-aged dad tearfully told the story of completing a drug deal in order to save his son, the boy having owed the dealer several thousand dollars.

My second thought was more peculiar to me.

The group therapy relied on the same principles as my improv comedy troupe.

I do improvisational comedy with a group in Washington, D.C. It’s a fun and challenging environment and led me to meet some of the funniest characters in the nation’s capital. At the core, improv groups create scenes and relationships for an audience completely made up on the spot. Despite the random nature scenes can take, the success of an improvised story relies on players following a few basic principles. And those same principles appeared repeatedly throughout the week in group therapy.

So for anyone too intimidated to do improv and doesn’t feel up to splurging on a fun-filled family vacay to rehab, I’ll save you the trouble and give a crash course in both. To me they happen to include the same steps.

1. Focus on players and relationships.

A common improv mistake is running into a scene thinking about your own one liners, trying to crack the best jokes, or talk about people not present. Improv scenes rely on the relationships between the players, regardless of the setting or character quirks. The audience is more invested in watching players form or expand on relationships.

This is one of the more evident connections to a week of therapy. For my own “group forum” I sat in a chair across from my dad while a room of twenty people surrounded us, quietly watching. I was given the speaking format of addressing how his actions made me feel.

I tried deflecting, saying, “You made mom feel this. You did this to the boys.” The counselor gently brought me back to my own feelings, every time asking, “They’re not the ones sitting here. How did you feel about it.”

How did I feel? I was mad. And impatient for him to get better. And frustrated at feeling useless for not helping with the recovery. I was bitter about his past choices and pessimistic that he would recover this time around. I thought these feelings were all irrelevant to his recovery, but with the group silently watching I said them aloud anyways.

The counselor and my dad nodded almost simultaneously. I leaned back in my chair, heart rate rising after the rant. The scene had been brought back to the two characters present.

“Thank you,” said the counselor, “that’s a step in the healing process.”

2. Speak the truth.

Things deviate from the normal in improv scenes. After all, improvisation is constrained communication, so misunderstandings naturally happen as lines are created on the spot. What makes it interesting is committing and believing in whatever has been created. You’re a vampire who’s allergic to blood? What was that like during your childhood? How do you get nutrients? How do you socialize at family gatherings with other vampires?

When in fantastic scenes, respond realistically, asking yourself, “If this is true, then what else is true?”

In therapy, we were told again and again to be honest when speaking to a loved one. This was just as much for our own healing as it was for them to understand the root of our feelings. People often act like onions, only showing their top exterior, while multiple soft and vulnerable layers lie beneath. I only realized how many layers I covered myself in when I realized I‘d become good at deflecting discussions of my emotional pain.

Speaking the truth is what I struggle with most in an improv scene. Every time I have a scene partner I determinedly want to discuss the weather or try to fix something, be it a toilet or broken nail. I pretty much do this in real life too. It’s not very interesting to watch or listen to.

Speaking to my dad I first felt determined to portray Calm Person, sitting in a chair, and in a detached voice discuss events of the past. Calm Person felt nothing but a mildly uncomfortable metal chair. Calm Person had already moved on from any childhood cuts. She was fine and only wanted to discuss what was on the lunch menu. Hopefully french fries.

They counselors immediately saw through my diversions to speak the truth. Not that being boring matters in therapy, but things buried in every nook and cranny inside me would never be unleashed if I continued to lie as Calm Person. It’s my own unhealthy addiction and one I clung to for dear life.

As Calm Person sat in the chair, I had flashbacks to improv class as teachers asked, “How are you actually feeling? What did their actions make you want to do?”

The same words were uttered and I started to cry, the metal chair becoming a cool comfort to my suddenly hot skin. I had never before cried in front of strangers while discussing my feelings. A hot bubble seemed to rupture within me, all the years plugged-up feelings.

“It makes me disappointed when you drink. I feel scared and like I failed. I couldn’t make you stop. And I felt like you not wanting to stop for me was harder to accept.” It took long minutes to get through these few sentences, but in time I finished, the bubble burst.

3. Listen before reacting.

We live in a reactionary culture. We’re encouraged to have an opinion or answer to a question before it’s asked. This turns into conversations where we stop listening once we think we know what someone is going to say. We start thinking about our response, often missing the point of the speaker. And if we’re already certain we know what’s going on in someone’s head, our brain is only primed to accept information agreeing with our preconceived notions.

I watched my dad’s personality change throughout high school as his addiction worsened. We stopped listening to each other, me assuming he was too drunk to remember or speak honestly, and him assuming Ididn’t care what he had to say.

From class 1 in improv I realized what a terrible listener I’d become. Whether in a scene or real life (they can be similar), I failed to listen with empathy to what others had to say. “I had a really bad day today…” a friend would start to share and I’d immediately interrupt. “Yeah! Bad day! Me too! Ugh the worst…. so what was your story?”

Naturally listening in therapy was key to moving forward, yet there’s different ways to listen. We were encouraged to suspend judgement while the patients talked, letting them tell their side. It also wasn’t always about telling your story.

My dad has a soft and vulnerable side he shared with his fellow patients, and they were quick to defend him to my family. We claimed to be sick of hearing his promises that he’d make a difference this time. Things would get better this time and we wouldn’t be back here again.

Our aversion to his words “I promise” made me realize we were afraid to listen, because listening properly also brought on hope. And with hope there’s the chance of being disappointed again.

Yet ultimately, I think it’s that willingness to hope and believe in a person that’s key in the healing process as well. Why bother getting better if no one believes you can? Believing in a person carries you and a scene partner through a bit, waiting for an audience laugh at the end.