Improv is not therapy: a cautionary tale

Improv can be very therapeutic. It can teach you better communication skills, help you access and process your emotions, and give you practice relating honestly to other human beings. And, if you’re a Christian, I think improv can give you some concrete practice in doing unto others and being part of one body. Improv has helped me be better at being a human.

But I cannot emphasize this enough: Improv is not therapy.

I’ve been part of troupes where one player had a crush on another, or a grudge against another, or whatever, and they made every scene about that. I had one teammate who went through a phase of turning everything into a father-son scene in which the son takes revenge upon the father and another who made every scene into a fantasy of his relationship with one girl.

If a coach asked a player like that about her choices, she would say, “That was my first instinct. I’m drawing on my life experience.”

Ok, do that. Draw on life experience. Take your instincts seriously.

I can’t tell you your instincts are wrong. But you should have the self-awareness to know when your instincts are helpful. Work on your interpersonal relationships outside of practice. Drop the agenda. Improvise in the actual moment with the people who are actually present.

Improv is not therapy. For that matter, church is not therapy. Therapy is therapy. And it might be totally necessary and helpful, but it’s for a certain time and place.

Do not turn your improv practice into group therapy time any more than you would turn an inductive Bible study into group therapy. You’re there for a very specific purpose. Leave your issues at the door. Take care of yourself outside of practice, or else you’ll end up with a cripplingly dysfunctional group dynamic.

And now, a true, cautionary tale:

This was our “ironic detachment” phase. It did not serve us. The Breakfast Club was not taking new members.

We were a college troupe, and we named ourselves Third Wheel. We may as well have called ourselves, “We feel awkward and jilted, and maybe nobody likes us, but watch us not care.”

Four of our guys, two of whom were gay, were in love with one of our girls; well over half of us (myself included) were on heavy duty medication for depression and anxiety. Because we couldn’t leave our issues at the door, the atmosphere was poisonous. Every practice was like that one Angel episode where our heroes get possessed by metaphors for their relationships. 

If our coach called us out on it, we paused our infighting to band together against him. He was obviously wrong and couldn’t understand the emotional depth of our scene work. (We burned through a lot of coaches.)

I so wish these pictures were not typical of our collective attitude.

We didn’t get many shows, and we were cut from the roster after only a few months. It is really, really hard for a whole troupe to get cut at a Christian college, where folks are generally prone to charity. To my knowledge, we were the only team ever to get cut rather than fade out as our members graduated.

I was outraged and heartbroken at the time. However, if I were in the club director’s position, I hope I would have had the guts to make the same decision.

Half of the players quit pursuing improv altogether. Some of them were really good, too. It’s a shame, but who could really blame them after that soap opera?

Even so, some of us are still friends, and those of us who stuck with improv were better for having been through an in-depth course in how-not-to-practice. I hope you don’t have to go through the same thing to learn that lesson.

For the record, I think each of these people are lovely. There are hugs when we cross paths.

2 thoughts on “Improv is not therapy: a cautionary tale

  1. Steve

    Yeah, that was rough. You are exactly right, though–I see that whole episode differently now, after having been in healthy troupes.

    Reply
  2. Caleb

    My time with this group taught me more about love in taut places than just about any other experience. But reading this is the first time I learned that you gave yourselves that troupe name. I thought it was assigned to you. This version makes much more sense.
    I’m grateful my natural obliviousness made me impervious to some of the romantic drama. But the troupe interplay drama was my purview, and it exhibited a high level of dysfunction. But you’re right—there are some very talented people pictured here. And love covers over multitudes of failings.
    On another note, I’m pretty sure I introduced myself to Christy at least four times.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *