Tag Archives: Wheaton Improv

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.

Harold with Your Eyes Closed

When I teach improv workshops or coach troupes, my first order of business is to get them comfortable with Harold. Harold is the simplest long form, but it is not necessarily easy. To an audience, it looks like an improvised play. To an improviser, the breakdown looks something like this:

Infographic by Dyna Moe, via Story Robot

Harold gets a lot of flack. Some workshops and troupes have told me Harold is too basic for them and they want to move on to something more sophisticated. (I find that, often, those are usually the groups who don’t do well with risk, and their Harolds are dull as a result.) Others have told me they didn’t want to do Harold because it was impossible. (Maybe it is impossible, but I’ve seen it done so many times, and I’ve done it myself.)

Harold is an excellent barometer for how a troupe is really doing, especially when it comes to spotting games and patterns, heightening, and reincorporation. No one moves past Harold. Your Harolds get weirder or more elegant as you grow as a player and as a troupe, but a good Harold is never boring. If you can do Harold, you can do anything.

Some friends and I have been getting together for the past several weeks to work on our improv. There are six or seven of us, depending on the night, and we are called Stradivarius and the Other Kinds. We were each in wheatonIMPROV, but we had never all played together. We were in different eras of the club and on different troupes. Given the range of experience, I foresaw our practices being a little rocky as we fought to reconcile our various approaches to improv and life.

So I was wonderfully surprised when, twenty minutes into our first practice, the group mind clicked. I think it was because of the following two things: (1) We respect one another, despite not have much shared stage time under our belts, and (2) we all have a thorough grasp of Harold. We could do a Harold with our eyes closed. In fact, that is exactly what we did. …  More on that later.