Improv Is Cheaper Than Therapy

By Tom Carrozza


When I first studied Improvisation at 17 at Second City in Chicago, I didn’t foresee how much of my life would ultimately be devoted to it. I am typical of The Improv Movement in that I can order my pizzas in the style of Ionesco, but I am atypical in the sense that I went on to teach Improv, rather rigorously, for many would ultimately be devoted to it. I am typical of The Improv Movement in that I can order my pizzas in the style of Ionesco, but I am atypical in the sense that I went on to teach Improv, rather rigorously, for many years.

This has afforded me a unique overview: I see the direct effect Improvisation has on an individual. Of one thing I’m certain – it’s healthy.

There is an instant liberation that happens to a person when their inner self, their true self, is suddenly seen in great flourish. Initially, it is almost like watching a stranger, someone that isn’t you, doing these unusual things. But it is, of course, and that payoff is profound. As the inner self melds with the outer self, a number of good things are set into motion. Confidence that may have been dormant for years surges to meet the moment, and spontaneity becomes a loyal friend.

Though Improvisation is a form of Theatre, you do not have to be an actor to participate in it. It is for everyone. Kathy Kinney from The Drew Carey Show says, “Everybody has an Improv muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it gets.” It’s just that simple. Nor do you have to be a comedian. Teachers usually emphasize from the first class that you shouldn’t try to be funny but instead strive to be real; “funny” shows up on its own. Another simple truth.

I like teaching beginners, everyday people, raw talent, right off the vine. Their vulnerability is undercut by explosive potential and, as one of my colleagues once put it, “they haven’t grown fangs yet.” This is powerful stuff, and transformational too, make no mistake about it. I find it thrilling to watch a regular, ordinary person strike Improv gold for the first time. It is a solid validation for them. It is this self that no one can harm,

As your self-image improves, your comfort zone grows. Newfound power allows you to carry yourself securely in almost any situation. Aren’t these among the things one seeks through therapy?

“There’s something age-defying about Improv too,” fellow teacher Tom Soter points out. “You can just as easily be called upon to be a lovesick teenager or a ancient scientist Sometimes it takes a blind leap to get there.” True again, and the ability to launch yourself into those roles with utter conviction is the very thing that draws people to the Theatre in the first place – Play. And it’s still a four-letter word to many. Most adults are cut off from it and don’t know why they’re unhappy.

Groundlings instructor Brian Palermo sees it that way too. “Improv is to adults what playgrounds are to children: a safe place to run wild, scream and have fun.” Safe, is the key word there. “You can spew out any thoughts or feelings, often times as a character, and no one holds you accountable for it.” You’re free. Everyone knows it’s play.

“A simple game in which you are forced to change your emotions several times in the same scene can be enlightening,” smiles A.M.D.A. teacher Gail Dennison. “Not only do you realize that you can choose how to react, but most people have a giant pile of emotions that they never use.” Or maybe were forbidden to use. I recall one woman quietly crying after class who told me that she was not allowed to be silly as a child, so for her this was like reaching back to herself in those early years, and keeping her silly self alive. There’s some healing in that, wouldn’t you say?

I’m still amused when a student sits down after improvising a scene and appears to be in a fresh daze; as if to ask, “Where was I just now?” That is the sign of a true believer. Someone who is literally stunned when it ends, is someone who was living it. When you are freely riding the tide of your own creativity, your neurosis is missing in action. The things that slow you down, or even stop you, vanish. That’s how a painting gets done, or a symphony, or a cherry pie – without problems.

One of the big catch phrases branded into students is “Yes, and…”. This mantra is a way to honor ideas other than your own (a hurdle for some), and a way to enhance the flow of the work. “No” blocks it. “The minute you add “Yes, and…” to your response, you’re on the road to positive recovery!” laughs Improv guru Cate Smit. “And that goes for real life too. People say no and snap shut out of habit, and some fantastic opportunities get lost. They should be doing Omprov.” Sound familiar?

This is only a whiff of the picnic that Improv can bring you. Aside from the rejuvenating properties of laughter itself and the instant manifestation of your ideas, it is as exciting as self-exploration can get. It strengthens whatever creative process you already have, and lends itself to any project you choose to undertake. Lifelong friendships and spiritual connections are made. Because Improv is usually studied in groups, it soon becomes blatantly obvious that you and yours were meant to meet each other, and take this path together, as a makeshift family. I see it happen all the time, and it’s pretty darn sweet.

“How can you study Improvisation?” I am often asked. “How can it be improvised if you know what you’re doing?” Well, there are some rules and guidelines as in any other sport, and they’re there for a reason. There are many schools of Improv, each with its own set or priorities, but a basic knowledge of the ropes should keep you afloat in any of them. What seem like contradictions at first, are just overlapping flavors that may or may not taste good together. Mix to your own liking.

Let me close by noting that good teachers can turn up anywhere, not just in big cities. There are plenty of terrific books on the subject, so if you cannot find a formal Improv class near you, you can easily start your own. All you need is a small mob of eager minds, and a place to play. The rest is simply a matter of plucking it all out of thin air and that, my friend, is Improv at its purest.