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!

Advertisements

New Episode of The Constant Struggle Featuring The Dandies’ Dale Wells

Our latest episode of The Constant Struggle podcast is up and this time, we had the pleasure of interviewing Dale Wells, improviser and co-founder of The Dandies & Holodeck Follies.

http://theconstantstruggle.podbean.com/e/e12-follow-your-passion-with-dale-wells/

close-shave-2013-dale-wells-c-neil-muscott

Dale speaks about the benefits and challenges producing live comedy shows in Toronto. We talk about the history of Star Trek improv in the city, about geek culture, and about his show; Holodeck Follies, kicking butt at this year’s FanExpo. Dale and Nick chat about what it’s like to be a Dad artist with a day job. We bring up his love of singing and the various ways in which improv can bring joy to your life.

What a positive guy!

***
With GREAT shout-outs to:
ANDIE WELLS
NATASHA BOOMER
ROB ARISS HILLS
THE 404s
GARY PEARSON
MARK LITTLE
KEN HALL
ALAN LEIGHTIZER
TODD VAN ALLEN (COMEDY ABOVE THE PUB)
GILLIAN ENGLISH &
TODD GRAHAM
***
 Be sure to follow The Dandies on Twitter @TorontoDandies & catch the next edition of #HolodeckFollies at Geek Hard Live!
#StruggleOn everybody!

#BrieCIF2015

I did it! I performed AND participated in this year’s Big City Improv Festival! Huzzah. My first time performing in the festival! Youpidyday!

My own. My precious. (Also, that's not my thumb)

My own. My precious. (Also, that’s not my thumb)

My first performance in #BCIF2015 were interesting an unexpected. Such, I suppose, is the nature of the art we practice. I was asked by my former teacher Robin Duke to perform in a show with other Humber alumni. I said yes, because Robin Duke. It was a while before I realized this show was actually part of #BCIF. It seems that because Humber is a sponsor, this is the show they contributed to the fest. And I got to be part of it. Yay.

In all honesty, I really didn’t know how to feel about it. I remember improv not to be one of the main focuses of the Humber comedy program. In fact, here’s what I remember about improv class at Humber:

  1. Alan Guttman continually blowing my mind in class, dropping his early Second City and Johnstonenian wisdom and;
  2. Adam Cawley running a longform workshop, which likely convinced me to sign up for Second City classes.

The students interested in performing stand-up seemed to outweigh those interested in improv in number and in willingness-to-give-it-a-try-ingness. All I’m saying is, it’s hard for someone who’s hiding behind a microphone to completely throw themselves into improv; it’s a art that requires a lot of letting go. I think one thing that makes stand-up do their thing, is an inability to let go; and also, in fact, a desire to to instead repeat the thing most people would let go over and over again in exchange for the laughter of strangers. Don’t get me wrong, I love that laughter, but I think I like spontaneity and discovery a wee bit more.

That being said, I was incredibly pleased and delighted to find out that improv at Humber is stronger than ever. Our show featured short form games. The performers were quick, they played fun characters and they were SMART. I got to play a super fun scene with the wonderful Ashley Comeau who was generous enough to give me a gift that allowed me to have SO MUCH FUN. All she had to say was “you looooooooove her” to cool guy Malik Powell and the game was afoot.

Following that set, I ran over to a friend’s house for, get this: her birthday, pizza, carrot cake, the Blue Jays victory, a tasty butter tart & a Liberal majority in Parliament. I excused myself and ran down to Bad Dog where I had my SECOND EVER SHOW in BCIF. Two shows in one night! I waited years for one show, period. This is like a woman who can’t get pregnant, so she overdoses on fertility meds and ends up getting quints…OR so is my understanding of reproductive medications.

So, an 11pm BCIF edition of Improv Game Show was show #2. On a Monday. The same day the Blue Jays were playing. And everyone was watching a pretty historic election. And despite all of this, the show was great! The energy was fantastic. Oliver Georgiou hosted and rocked the night! Our tech Scott, who I just met for the first time that night was freaking hilarious. ALL the improvisers were GREAT and the games were so much fun. We play this game all the time, and yet this edition felt particularly special.

The following day, my 1950s-inspired babefest Fifty Shades of 50 performed a magical set in the cabaret space. It was pretty wacky, there was a lot of talk about fart-smells, and we mentioned a character named “Little Noah No-Arms”. So…you know… improv gold! I love this format & performing with these women so much.

Here’s a shot my camera took of us mid-action:12042790_10101301938113596_5355067159631151847_n

There were many other performers and performances at this year’s festival filled with hilarity and greatness. But that’s not what this post is about. This is a different post.

In this post, I did it! I performed AND participated in this year’s Big City Improv Festival! Huzzah. My first time performing in the festival! Youpidyday!

 

 

Connecting with the Masters

The past few days have been very improv-heavy, a few days ago. I feel, right now, that I’m advancing but also not going anywhere simultaneously. The Big City Improv Festival began last Friday. This festival is the biggest improv festival in the country and after two years of unsuccessfully applying, I finally got in. If at first you don’t succeed and all that.

BCIF has workshops. Sweet, glorious workshops. And despite the variety, I signed up for only one, because it was pretty expensive and I knew I was likely going to be out of town the following weekend. So, I took the one led by Scott Adsit. It was called “Keeping it Real.” He did not name it.

The structure of the workshop was pretty simple. Warm-up, duo scenes. After each scene, Baymax himself gave us notes. Except the notes he gave were the best, most effective notes I’ve received. To give you a comparison, the last class I took, the INSTRUCTOR, the person who gets PAID, to TEACH & GIVE NOTES on performance, had us perform a montage. Before we began, he threw away his notebook and pen told us SPECIFICALLY he would not be taking notes. Which to me says: “Do your thing, I’m going to check out for the next 20 minutes, see ya.” Scott Adsit, someone who has VERY little invested in a few improv nerds from Toronto, took extensive notes, and dropped them like bombs on those of us who listened. Some of the notes were simple, yet brilliant; “There is no should’ve, there’s only could’ve!” Some were EXTREMELY personal (I’m looking at you divorce attorney’s office scene,) but all were incredibly helpful. You know it’s been a good workshop when the thing culminates in a group hug, is all I’m saying.

I learned how I feel as though I am accepting offers, sometimes, but am not really acting on them. I justify in my mind that I have accepted the offer, but often delay actual action, which is what the scene actually needs. After tamyhe workshop, I reviewed one scene in particular of Exit Pursued by a Bear‘s, which we performed in Halifax, where bridesmaid Gill asked male store
clerk Brie to zip up her dress. I found a million ways to not zip up her dress, and justified the shit out of all of them, when all I really needed to do, was just zip up that mother flippin’ dress!

<—— REMINDER

I then watched the masters, Adsit & Lutz, in action on Sunday. They performed a mind-blowing set together in which not a single offer was dropped. They were both in such synch. After a weekend of thinking a LOT about improv, it was great to see it done so well. But it was also fun to see how pros dealt with mistakes (see: gifts) – like that moment Adsit mentioned something about his mother doing something, after previously stating that mother was in fact dead. He loved it. We loved it. Love your mistakes. Embrace the fuck-ups. It’s the only way!

Speaking of masters in action, I was fortunate enough to acquire a ticket to see Sir Paul McCartney‘s show last Saturday evening, (thank you Martha.) I saw the real-life, actual Beatle, Paul McCartney. It was this wonderful feeling of being at the same moment fully present, but also strongly connected to a time before your own. Just seeing all these people, mostly around Paul’s age, singing along to songs we’ve heard for years but, let me assure you, there is nothing in the world quite like singing Let it Be with almost 20,000 other people, one of whom is the ACTUAL MAN singer/songwriter of that very song! It’s incredible. I feel like the main descriptor I can use to quantify the night is: goosebumpy. He sang a song honouring John, mentioning things he wishes he’d said to him before he died, and we all sang Something together in George’s memory. It was super powerful stuff. The grade 5 in me, who watched The Beatles Anthology over and over again for months over that one March break my parents went on a cruise, came out and sucked on the gracious apple juice that was this concert and she liked it very much indeed.The grown up in me was blown away by how talented a singer/songwriter he is and how fantastic it must be to have a career span so long doing something so awesome that people everywhere adore.

So I’m inspired now. I’ve seen some pretty rockin’ stuff in the span of one short weekend. And we’re about to begin another one already. Let’s see what it brings.

CRkqYMJUkAA-0M_

For those interested parties, this was Paul’s set list Saturday night at the ACC:

  1. Eight Days a Week
  2. Save Us
  3. Got to Get You Into my Life
  4. One After 909
  5. Temporary Secretary
  6. Let Me Roll It
  7. Paperback Writer
  8. My Valentine
  9. Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Five
  10. The Long and Winding Road
  11. Maybe I’m Amazed
  12. I’ve Just Seen a Face
  13. FourFiveSeconds
  14. We Can Work It Out
  15. Another Day
  16. And I Love Her
  17. Blackbird
  18. Here Today
  19. New
  20. Queenie Eye
  21. Lady Madonna
  22. All Together Now
  23. Lovely Rita
  24. Eleanor Rigby
  25. Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!
  26. Something
  27. Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da
  28. Band on the Run
  29. Back in the U.S.S.R.
  30. Let it Be
  31. Live and Let Die (SO MANY PYROTECHNICS!) 
  32. Hey Jude
  33. Another Girl <— ENCORE
  34. Hi, Hi, Hi
  35. I Saw Her Standing There
  36. Yesterday <–— ENCORE 2
  37. Mull of Kintyre (with a full Pipe band!)
  38. Helter Skelter
  39. Golden Slumbers
  40. Carry That Weight
  41. The End

 

In the Air Last Night

Yesterday was a great day. And I’m not just talking about:

joey-bats.jpg.size.xxlarge.letterbox

But it certainly did help.

There was already so much excitement in the air because of the Blue Jays that it filled the city’s air with something vaguely magiacal.

I was a little bummed out because I wasn’t going to catch most of the game because I had a dentist appointment, but the dental hygienist had Yahoo! Sports tracking the score throughout my appointment and frequent radio hits between pop hits kept me updated regularly.

After the appointment, I met with a friend. We’d scheduled to meet to discuss an upcoming project that will certainly be very fun and for a great cause. We sat at a bakery on Bloor, where sure enough, the game was on. And, despite my pal’s obvious lack of interest in baseball, she was kind enough not to shit on me the couple times my eyes drifted to the screen. The meeting wrapped shortly after the bizarre incident with Martin’s attempt to return the ball to the pitcher’s mound, and the debate over the call frustrated me. I decided to leave the bakery and not watch the rest of the game, because if the Rangers were going to win on such a stupid call, then fuck them. That’d just be a crap way to go.

Except that how could I not watch the rest of the game? I walked by Comedy Bar where I knew people would be tuned in. I caught all of the 7th inning madness before I had to head out for a show.

I took the subway over to the Social Capital theatre, where I managed to catch the last inning of the game and the Blue Jays’ ultimate victory! WOoooooooooohoooooooooooooo! And what better way to celebrate, than to perform a super duper fun set at Improv League Toronto (that had nothing to do with baseball). What a cool show. You get to watch some awesome up-and-coming longform troupes doing their best, fun thang and you get to do the same. It’s friendly competition, and ultimately, I don’t know what happens at the end of the league, but what I do know is that we’ve had some fun sets so far in the league. At least, the ones I’ve been able to attend anyway. (I was in Halifax and I missed a couple.) I really love performing with this troupe. There’s something super fun about incorporating this particular era into our improv. And next week we get to do nearly a half hour set for BCIF! It’s going to be SO FUN!

After the set, I ran BACK over to Comedy Bar for another longform show I’d been asked to guest called Personal Space Invaders. What a fun show. Again, watching up-and-coming troupes find their stride. A bunch of different levels of experience and expertise, and I had the pleasure of performing a set with some dudes I’ve rarely (if ever) played with, and it was a LOT of fun!

Mmm. Improv AND baseball.

Maybe there was a light-heartedness to the air on account of the fact I was so stressed during the game, but I felt good about my performances, and I just enjoyed them so much. I understand that’s an important part of the process, but I felt it so much yesterday and was so grateful about it.

I could barely sleep last night I was so dang excited about the past day. Every once in a while you need one of those. Even if you feel like a rotten sack of shit waking up the next morning.