Tag Archives: college

Depression and the discipline of just showing up

I have said before that improv is not therapy*, but it can be therapeutic.

I got hit hard by depression and anxiety about a year into practicing improv. My playing wasn’t stellar during that time, because I was so full of self-judgment that it was hard to have fun. I thought about quitting.

My counselor suggested I show up and pretend to have fun, just for a few minutes at a time. Did it fix everything? No, but it got me through practice that night.

As I healed up, pretending to have fun turned into really having fun. I’m not sure which came first, really.

Doing this in improv helped me to do it at church. While I was depressed, it was pretty hard for me to connect with other people, much less with God. I couldn’t focus to read the Bible. But I could show up at church, and I could be present while other people read Scripture, and sometimes I could join in the prayers or the Creed with my mouth if not with my heart. I don’t remember exactly when pretending to say the Lord’s Prayer turned into praying the Lord’s Prayer.

Just showing up at improv practice overflowed into just showing up at church. I couldn’t muster the emotional energy to sincerely pray the Lord’s Prayer, but I could still recite it. Somewhere along the way, pretending to pray in church turned into praying in church.

Even if you’re dealing with something emotionally crippling, the discipline of showing up is hugely helpful.

For me, it was also helpful to practice focusing on other people, just for a few minutes, just for this scene. And then just for another few minutes, just for one more scene. My scenes were probably not awesome. That’s ok.

My troupe and my church both had grace for me, which encouraged me to have some for myself.**

*OH MY GOSH IMPROV IS NOT THERAPY. 

**If you’re depressed and are in a church or friend group that is less gracious than mine was, I highly recommend the book Darkness Is My Only Companion, as well as the chapter of Good News for Anxious Christians entitled, “Why You Don’t Always Have To Experience Joy.”

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.