My life work is sharing the mindset and behaviors inherent in improvisation with as many people as possible, because I believe it’s one of the most simple, powerful and fun practices on the planet. In meeting more than 10,000 students in this human laboratory for collaboration called improvisation, some repeated themes and experiences appear over and over again.
Perhaps the most common story thread I hear is: “Improvisation changed (or saved) my life. It is the single most healing thing I’ve done for myself.” I have lost count of how many students have shared their healing story with me. They’ve tackled anxiety, depression, cancer, lack of self-confidence, loss of a loved one, loss of job, isolation, fear, anger, chemical dependency, divorce, creative blockages, loneliness, etc. And they credited their practice of improvisation as the healing agent.
There are tons of studies (some proven via old fashioned scientific method, others anecdotal) about the healing power of humor. I think most of us agree that humor is good for you. I could site all the findings, but by now most of us know them. Our bodies produce pain-killing hormones called endorphins in response to laughter; laughter strengthens immune function by the production of T-cells, interferon and immune proteins called globulins; and laughter reduces the stress hormone cortisol to bring us to a more relaxed state. We get it. Just like no one is going to claim that vegetables are fundamentally bad for you, (stay away from those green beans people!!! They will steal your soul!), I don’t think anyone is fundamentally against humor (and if they are, I guess they won’t get it anyways).
While all improvisation is not always funny, the practice of improvisation tends to organically find its way to truthful, comic life moments. I’ve always said improvisation produces one of the purest forms of comedy in all of art because it is not manufactured, rather it is discovered.
In 1998 I experienced the collision of improvisation and healing in my own personal life when I lost my sister to cancer. I had been practicing and teaching improvisation for seven years by this point in my life and my improvisation practice turned out to be the way through the most difficult time of my family’s life. The mindset and tools I developed via improvisation were my way to navigate this unexpected world turned upside down
One of the things I love most about practicing improvisation is that every story we make is unique in that moment. Every story is valid. There is no perfect, right, or exact way to create. What a metaphor for life! There are thousands of ways this practice has helped me and many others heal through life’s toughest moments.
Now nearly 20 years after first navigating cancer with improvisation, I’m proud to be offering a free weekly Improv for Life class for those touched by cancer through a partnership between the BNW and Gilda’s Club Twin Cities (GCTC). I get to teach this class every Wednesday and it’s been the one of the highlights of my career. We laugh and play and sometimes cry.
My students at Gilda’s Club Twin Cities are some of the best improvisers I’ve ever worked with in my life. They understand what it means to let go and surrender to the moment.
Improv for Life student Bobbie says, “I don’t do denial well and we all have to cope somehow. Humor, be it black or not, is my ‘go-to’ [tool] for coping. Cancer is all so hard and heavy. We just have to lighten the load to make it through the day.”
From working with thousands of students like Bobbie over the past 27 years, I’ve collected a growing list of the healing benefits of practicing the mindset and behaviors of improvisation. I’ve highlighted a few here.
1. Restored Connection
Loss is debilitating. Whether it’s the loss of a loved one like in my situation, or loss of a job, or even loss of community due to relocation, we humans need connection. Improvisation is a way to get a big infusion of it when we need it most.
Practicing improvisation requires collaboration, communication and connection with other humans. Improvisation requires humans to work together to create an instant, in-the-moment shared experience. There’s no pussy footing around — we jump in to human connection because the very story we are creating depends upon it.
2. Abundant thinking
There is a saying in improvisation that “you always have what you need in that very moment.” We practice finding what we need because everything we do in improvisation is discovered and created from the emptiness of that moment. We seemingly have nothing (no script, no plan, no props), but truthfully we have everything we need. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve used this philosophy to get me through a stuck life moment. Just when you think there is no way, you open your mind and discover something new and useful.
“At any given moment, I had the power to choose what to make of what faced me that day.”
3. Reframing life
This practice forces you to take what is in front of you and make something useful of it quickly and in the moment. That’s life in a nutshell. When cancer tears at the fabric of your family there are moments you think the only option is to curl up in a ball and surrender. From my practice in improvisation, I knew that I had a choice to reframe. At any given moment, I had the power to choose what to make of what faced me that day. In improvisation, we practice the skill of noticing the truth of what is in front of us and making something positive from it instantly. More on this later, but this is a big one! It’s life changing.
4. Healthy intimacy
Practicing improvisation requires two or more humans to share an empty space together and create something on the spot from only what they have together in that moment. There is no script, no prescription. We must jump in, get dirty and figure it out, and quickly. We must dig deep inside, listen and discover what it is in your heart and imagination and put it out there…now! This can be extremely vulnerable and scary, but in practicing this skill in improvisation, we are practicing an extremely healthy version of intimacy. We practice sharing our ideas, risking them out in front of the group. We have to be real and authentic because it’s all we have in that moment. We learn to trust intimate connection and this combats isolation, disconnection and depression.
“We practice sharing our ideas, risking them out in front of the group. We have to be real and authentic because it’s all we have in that moment.”
5. Practice for the tough stuff in life
We get to try things on in a practice way before trying them in real life. We get to practice problem solving, hard conversations, new emotions, and different points of view in our lab of creative story making. We get to practice making the story of our life in a fun and supportive way. And the amazing bonus is that our brain thinks it’s real. So if you jump into an improvisational scene and share with a confident voice, one that you may not yet comfortably use in your real life, your brain knows no difference. It counts as a real, confident moment in your life.
6. Renewed bravery and resilience
We know we’re uncomfortable and we do it anyways. While others might be on the sidelines hesitating, planning and perfecting their moves before they move, improvisers are already in the story/scene figuring it out and making it work no matter what.
Life throws us a curve ball and we respond with resilience, bravery and ideas. It doesn’t mean we are not scared or uncomfortable, it means we do it anyways. And in the doing, over and over practicing our improv mindset, we remember that we humans are strong, resilient, creative problem solvers.
We are powerful inventors and undeniable adapters. We can accomplish things that our brains tell us are impossible and frighten the crap out of us. This practice of getting comfortable being uncomfortable builds confidence, strength, self-resilience.
7. Find the YES again
Illness, loss, and other life challenges often carry with them a loss of control or interruption of normal. We’re faced with a big NO in some way. NO your body cannot do that. NO you are not welcome here. NO you cannot be with that person anymore.
Practicing improvisation forces you to find the YES in every situation. Every improviser knows the phrase “Yes And.” It’s our most fundamental belief in improvisation. Just when you feel life has handed you a big no, improvisation helps you re-find your yes.
Former student and BNW alum Jeff said, “A couple of years after losing my dear wife to cancer I was lost in a sea of pessimism and grief. My practice began on the first day of instruction and the concept of not only YES, but AND too, hit me like a ton of bricks. The folks at the Brave New Workshop coaxed me out of the darkness and reintroduced me to joy and I have carried that happiness and delight in the unexpected with me ever since.”
8. Undeniable acceptance
We create an atmosphere of undeniable support. There are no bad ideas, no judgement, no critique. We agree to this “rule” on day one and from that day forward, practicing improv happens in the container of undeniable yes. The underpinning of all of BNW’s work is an environment of love, respect and support of all ideas and all humans. Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? It is!
Because of this safe container, we can take risks, open our minds and hearts, and know our teammates will be there no matter what. When week after week our teammates tell us: “Yes! You are good! Go for it!” We start to believe it for ourselves. BNW’s method of teaching improvisaiton is loving, respectful, and brings out the best in us. It’s about building UP the ideas of ourselves and others, not tearing them down. It’s like a bath of creative love!
9. Mindfulness in the moment
We practice the art of staying present in the moment and discovering what is, and building upon that. Finding that present mindfulness is proven to relieve stress and anxiety and has profound physical effects as well. By its very definition, improvisation only happens “in the moment” – as there is not bemoaning the past, and no planning ahead.
One of the beauties of improvisation is that everyone can do it AND succeed at it. I’ve never had a student “fail”. We are too busy having fun and focusing on the exercise or story to do anything else than what we are doing in that moment.
Improv for Life student Bobbie says this about mindfulness:
“Improv is my mindfulness training. When you practice mindfulness, it lets your body have a supportive place to heal. Improv teaches the same concepts of dealing with what you are given and making the best of it. It teaches you to stay in the moment because that is all we really have.
The practice stops you from always planning or worrying ahead because worry is all future based. We stay here and now. And on top of all that we get to practice this [mindset] in super supportive surroundings where we are always either being cheered on or cheering someone else on.
It also is my drug of choice for having time away from the problems of my life and just laughing. A whole hour with no pain and no worry. I really do not know anywhere else in my life that I can get that.”
10. Fun and play and joy
Practicing improvisation is fun! It’s pure joy and the laughter is real and deep and profound. Nothing more needs to be said here.
Janet, another Improv for Life student, recently shared: “Post-cancer, it has taken a while to rebuild my energy. So, I deliberately have chosen to invest my time in joyful activities that add to my energy level. Improv is a perfect fit with all the laughing we do together.”
Ready to experience the power of practicing improvisational mindset and behaviors? Why wait? Jump in now and sign up for Brave Tuesdays, our 10- week, weekly practice cohort.
– Jenni Lilledahl is the co-owner of the Brave New Workshop Theatre (along with her husband and co-improviser John Sweeney) and co-founder of Gilda’s Club Twin Cities.
Be Brave. Do Improv.