Improv, Road Trips and Mental Health

A few people have been asking me about a conference I attended last weekend in Chicago. It was the inaugural “Yes And Mental Health” conference and it was the first of its kind. Though it seems specialists have been using improv as a tool in helping folks with mental health issues for some time now, this was the first conference that melded these worlds together. The conference itself seemed predominantly for psychologists and people working in mental health, however there were tremendous benefits to attending for people like me, who are just improv instructors. (Not just an improv instructor, but like, there aren’t any credentials after my signature, is all I’m saying. Although I suppose I could put my Bachelor’s Degree in Social Science up there, but I’m neither pretentious nor desperate, so let’s get on with it.)

Back in April, I co-organized an event for the benefit of women in the comedy community in Toronto with my buds Alicia Douglas and Candace Meeks. The idea was that if other women in the comedy had gone through some of the garbage that we had gone through, it might be a good thing to have somewhere to talk about it, and to use some other skills like mindfulness and even improv itself to help us in dealing with said garbage.

Fast forward to last weekend, where in an effort to gain more knowledge and information about using mental health and wellness techniques for our own future workshops, we ended up in Chicago and were privy to exceptionally interesting lectures and fantastic performances all geared towards combining improv, mental health and wellbeing.

“The root of improvisation is in social change.” Rachael Mason

The weekend kicked off with a panel with notable improvisers such as Rachael Mason and Jimmy Carrane as well as some of the therapists who would be running the workshops over the weekend. Unfortunately, we missed the majority of this discussion due to it taking a long-ass time to get from Toronto to Chicago, but what I did get from this is that improv itself was used as a tool to help actors get in touch with the truth of their characters; while places using improv for entertainment like The Second City began also with a view of social change, using satire as subversion.

The next day, Mason talked about ways to correct racist and prejudiced behaviour as improv teachers and discussed the notion of creating “brave spaces” where every idea has the right to be explored. And though this means difficult subjects may come to light in class, it is there where improv teachers need to be as brave and judgement-less as their students in order for them to do the same. 

Improv has the power to provide very similar releases to what people sometimes experience through therapy; the main difference is that improv cannot provide the after-care. And that’s where a lot of people were talking about bridging the two fields and taking that conversation much more seriously going forward.  

We talked about the healing power of improv in a lecture by MSW Assael Romanelli. This was a bit more complicated to summarize but his work has proven that what happens when people play improv can generate growth in individuals; socially and personally. Anyone who’s done an improv program can probably say like “yeah, no shit!” to that, but he had some really cool actual brain- science to back it up. 

We learned about Therapeutic Improv from Azizi Marshall, a Drama Therapist. She taught us some games that can help encourage playfulness, expressiveness, creativity and interpersonal trust in individuals. (followed up, of course, with this notion that anything beyond these games would necessitate the leadership of a trained therapist or social worker.)

We watched an improv troupe comprised entirely of therapists, another entirely of people aged 50+ and then, watched a musical troupe have their set dissected by therapists in the form of a podcast. This opened up my view of who improv can belong to; because I often see it as a pursuit by mostly 20-30 year old actor/comedians, but these groups broke down those barriers (and analyzed the shit outta them!)

We learned the improv games that work very well when teaching improv people with Autism Spectrum Disorder and learned of the incredible strides in communicating some individuals can make in the playful and judgement-free zone of an improv class.

We took a musical impov workshop with Stephanie McCullough, which was fun and incredibly therapeutic. This was pretty groundbreaking for me because I typically see musical improv as a series of people either trying to outshine each other with the quality of their voice or their ability to rhyme. This was neither; it was musical and personal and political and I loved all of it.

Some of the workshops were running simultaneously, so sadly we weren’t able to take in every single one we would have liked. (I’m bummed I missed out on Margot Escott’s Play for Play’s Sake, but I’m hoping to find out about it on her podcast.

The whole weekend was an incredible re-set; remembering that improv is so much more than competition to. Remembering how it has helped me through some pretty crappy experiences of my own. Learning how I can apply certain learnings and techniques to make me a better improv teacher. Meeting new people who also see improv as being as powerful as I do. Sharing the experience with two of my best buddies who I also happen to admire the crap out of given their knowledge and experience with this craft.  Oh, and also, deep dish pizza.

I’m happy to talk to his in more detail with people individually, but right now, I’m inspired. We need a venue for our next workshop, and I can’t wait to get back in the classroom with my Level As.

Thanks so much to the organizers and everyone responsible for putting on the inaugural Yes And Mental Health Conference on a wonderful conference & all the best keeping this momentum going!

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