Tales from the Unstuffed Shirt
A Non-Awkward Discussion About Improv and Mental Health
The last several months have been difficult on my mental health. Boom! I said it! I won’t go into details, but I’ve learned to live with several mental health issues over the last 30 odd years. Most of the time, I’m able to maintain a productive mental state through effective self-care (diet, exercise, mindfulness, etc.). Sometimes, shit happens and I end up needing support from friends and caring professionals. That’s where I am now. If you’ve missed my regular updates on improv in the workplace, now you know why.
Obviously, this is a different kind of post for the Unstuffed Shirt. Instead of focusing on the opportunities for improv in the workplace, I want to use a few paragraphs to talk about improvisation and mental health. Why? Well, if you spend any time around an improv community, you quickly come to realize that improvisation tends to attract people who are either: (a) struggling with mental health challenges; or, (b) like to talk about their struggles with mental health challenges. This is a good thing.
Even after all the awareness-building that’s been done, there’s still not enough open talk about mental health in our culture.
I’ve had multiple conversations that have involved someone asking, “if you’re so depressed, how can you get on stage and try to be funny?” The simple answer is that sometimes I’ve felt like “trying to be funny” is the only thing I’m capable of doing. There have been times in my life when it’s been hard to drag my ass out of bed for anything other than an improv class, rehearsal or performance. Why? Three reasons:
I’ve never been part of another community (professional, political, religious, social, etc.) where people have been more attuned each other, willing to listen and show real empathy. Yes, improv draws its share of asshats; and, if you find yourself in an asshat-heavy environment, please find another place.
It may be naïve, but I believe that a large majority of people come to improv open to learning something about themselves and growing as human beings.
A lot of recent research has identified mindfulness as a powerful tool for managing a range of mental health issues, including depression. Luckily for us, improv is all about mindfulness: getting out of your head, focusing outward, turning off the inner judgy voice, and engaging fully in the moment. For me, 2-3 hours of improv can be transformative: from walking into a class or rehearsal completely trapped in my head to being open and much more objective about my situation by the time my “session” is over.
When you’re depressed, it’s a good thing to laugh. That’s not just me; it’s science! What better way to produce some much needed laughter than to watch a bunch of people you know and trust do unexpected things?
Personally, there’s not much that lifts my spirits more than the knowledge that the work I’m doing results in people laughing.
I’m not saying that improv is going to solve anyone’s mental health issues. Please DO NOT skip out on your therapist for an improv class based on this post. Improv (and comedy in general) is full of performers who desperately need professional mental health support. Any list of successful comedy artists (many of whom started in improv) includes too many that we lost too soon.
But, if you’re looking to add some laughter, mindfulness and human connection to your mental health toolkit, then improv is an option to consider.
As for me, I’m working my way back to “normal”. I’ve still got some self work to do, but I’m confident I’ll get there. It’s a road I’ve traveled before. Look for more Unstuffed Shirt ideas on improv within the workplace in the weeks and months ahead.
Steven Beauchem is a strategist and consultant helping clients to excel in the digital world. He studies and performs improv in Chicago and San Francisco, and is passionate about leveraging the ideas, energy and techniques of improv to drive innovation and cultural change in the corporate world. In his spare time, he is a board member at Stage 773, home of the Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival, and is also developing a new improv performance series (expected to launch in Chicago in spring 2017). Steven's writings here are his own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of his employers or clients.
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