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Improv to Improve? YES! (and...)

Updated: Jan 20, 2021

I was introduced to my first improv experience a few years ago when a librarian friend learned of a free trial class in town. She wanted to give it a try. Knowing me, a personal trainer, group fitness instructor, an extrovert with experience and comfort with public speaking and a natural “class clown”, she thought I would be a good person to drag along.

The class was two hours long. What we ALL learned very quickly was that I was not cut out for improv. I don’t mean I was inhibited or not funny or too stiff ….yes I was all those things, too, but I was also just really bad. My friend, on the other hand, was a natural. She was witty, and fast, imaginative, engaging and believable. Everyone wanted to be in a scene with her.

I came home and put improv in my list of things best done by others (along with my taxes and birdwatching). I don’t generally pursue things I am not good at or seem to have no aptitude for. And that would have been okay…except…I thought I would be GREAT. It was my librarian friend who was supposed to be chosen last for the “and then what happened” scene, not me.

After giving this some thought, it occurred to me; what she had and I didn’t, what she was able to do, and what I couldn’t. Why she was such a star and I was not: My friend, the librarian, spends her day listening to people. Really listening. She has conversations of depth; a sharing of ideas, opinions and exchanges of information. She is proficient in diplomacy, able to converse with anyone, regardless of topic, in a cordial and tactful manor because she listens without injecting herself into every conversation. What a wonderful and useful attribute and skill. I, on the other hand, spend my vocation giving instruction, guidance and information. I don't really have to listen to anyone. I realized this is a skill I wanted to be better at. This is a skill that would serve me well in work and in my life. I was going back to learn to listen.

And so began my three-year stint with improv. I joined an 8-week beginner session. My class consisted of 15 other beginner improv students, all of whom were twenty years my junior and all of whom were pursuing careers in theater. We were all there to learn and grow and become better – better actors, better writers, better standup performers and, for me, a better instructor, trainer, friend, mother and wife.

Improv, for me, really did improve my life. I am thankful for that experience and opportunity. I saw the others in my classes over the next two years grow and explore all kinds of personal and professional avenues through the use of improv. I watched inhibited people become more expressive, shy people become more outgoing, timid people gain confidence, ok performers become better and those with comedic aspirations become much funnier.

After sitting in the Improv to improve Parkinson's disease (i2ipd) class the other day, it was clear improv has some real benefits for people living with Parkinson’s Disease (PD) too. Changes in vocal power and/or intonation can make a more interesting scene. Facial expression can change the entire feel and direction of an interaction. Having to listen, focus, remember, are essential skills in improv. These and other physical and cognitive elements needed to perform improv are often affected and diminished by PD. What a wonderful, fun, creative and beneficial way of addressing each of these symptoms; working to regain movements or skills that have become reduced or lost, gain neuroplasticity in the brain and in doing so, remain socially connected, fending off depression and isolation so often experienced by people living with PD.

There are so many good reasons to learn and partake in improv. It seems PD is yet another.

Lauren Lewis is an instructor at Power for Parkinson's in Austin, TX.

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