Priscillia Seelan
Priscillia Seelan
Priscillia Seelan
Priscillia Seelan

So Funny, It Doesn’t Hurt By KATHLEEN TOOHILL

This article was originally published at

Can improv be a form of therapy? Some psychologists think so.

When I took my first improv class in August 2013, I harbored no delusions of someday headlining comedy shows. My interest was more practical: A colleague at the Los Angeles-based startup where I worked had recently started taking the class, hoping that it would help him become quicker on his feet in meetings. He told the rest of our department how fun the classes were, and encouraged us to try it. I was a hard sell—I hate public speaking—but I also knew that improvising was a skill that I could stand to develop. Begrudgingly, I signed up to audit a beginner’s class at Improv for the People (IFTP), a theater in Culver City, California.And somehow, despite my ingrained self-consciousness, I quickly discovered that I loved it. The give and take of improv performance felt exhilarating; I would arrive at each evening class feeling tired and leave three hours later full of energy.

According to Matthew Moore, my improv teacher and the founder and artistic director of IFTP, that’s not unusual among his students, even the shyer ones. Moore, who has led many corporate workshops through Improv for the People, said a handful of companies have sent employees to his class to work on their public-speaking skills. The majority of Moore’s students, however, sign up of their own accord, many for reasons similar to mine: They’re hoping to build confidence, or they want to improve their communication skills.

For some, the benefits can be even more significant: Researchers and clinical psychologists alike have begun to pay attention to improv, conducting studies or incorporate it into work with their patients. The improv stage, in theory, is a space free of judgment or fear of failure, making it an ideal environment for people who struggle with low self-esteem, social anxiety, or other types of anxiety disorders.While not a substitute for therapy, some psychologists believe improv can be an effective complement, in part because of the way it mirrors the patient/therapist dynamic. In 2013, Gordon Bermant, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, published a paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology that outlined the similarities between improv and applied psychology, or the use of psychological research to solve real-world problems. “Both improv and applied psychology practices aim to increase personal awareness, interpersonal attentiveness, and trust,” he  wrote.

The lack of planning and structure in improv means that performers must function without a safety net, but, as Bermant noted in his paper, “if all play authentically to each other, fear of failure loses its sting—a net of support is constructed from the openness, trust, and acceptance.” The relationship among members of an improv ensemble hinges on trust, as does the relationship between therapist and patient.

“The idea of a therapist holding a client in ‘unconditional positive regard’ describes a way of relating to others which is close to the ‘yes, and’ affirmations of improv,” Bermant told me. A key tenet of therapy is the guarantee that the therapist will not judge the client for what he or she says. Similarly, improv’s “yes, and” concept—one performer accepts another’s premise and adds to it—is built on the implicit promise that no idea will be shot down.

“The beauty of improv,” he said , “is that it is quintessentially a collective, cooperative form that rests completely on trust for the spark of creativity that can transport the players, briefly, into confidence-building interpersonal connections.”

According to Simon Rego, the director of psychology training at Montefiore Medical Center in New York, performing improv could function as informal exposure therapy for people who struggle with social anxiety or fear speaking in front of crowds. In exposure therapy, psychologists help patients to gradually confront their fears, working up from the slightly nerve-racking (like performing in front of only one other person) to the full-blown worst-case scenario (like “bombing” in front of a large crowd).

“For people who feel anxious socially, getting up in front of a crowd repeatedly would create an excellent opportunity to reduce their fear—no matter what the outcome,” Rego said. “It will either turn out better than they thought so they’ll feel less anxious next time, or if it does not go well, they will learn that they can cope with it.” Rego practices cognitive-behavioral therapy, which helps people change their thoughts and behaviors in order to change how they feel. It’s a common treatment for anxiety and the idea is to teach patients to question negative thought patterns by identifying “cognitive distortions,” or gathering evidence for and against their thoughts. At the same time, they learn effective ways to alter problematic behavioral patterns, like facing feared situations instead of avoiding them.

David Carbonell, a Chicago-based psychologist and anxiety specialist, runs a workshop for people with a fear of public speaking that incorporates elements of improv. In Carbonell’s workshop, one participant gives a speech while another participant voices the negative, self-critical thoughts that are likely running through the speaker’s mind: “How come you’re pausing for so long? It looks like you’re nervous up there! What kind of breathing is that you’re doing?”

“It’s amazing what happens when [the speaker] hears all of these terribly self-critical thoughts actually voiced by another person,” Carbonell told me. “It’s easier to handle than when it’s in the back of his or her own mind. [This exercise] really takes away some of the power of these self-critical thoughts.”

Carbonell also uses improv techniques in a group he leads for people with a fear of flying. The group meets several times before going on a flight together. At one meeting, with the group gathered around a conference table, Carbonell asks one of the participants to start chanting what he or she finds most terrifying about flying. Soon all are chanting: a cacophony of interwoven fears.

Carbonell stops the chanting, and singles out a participant to chant the fear of someone across the table, and so on.

“By the end they’re laughing hysterically, because it’s hard for them to even remember what their fear was,” Carbonell said. “Social anxiety is all about inhibition and self-censorship, and that’s exactly what improv helps flip around.”

Carbonell doesn’t just incorporate improv into his practice as a psychologist—he’s also part of Chicago’s all-psychologist improv troupe, the Therapy Players, which had its debut performance in 2013. Since then, the group has performed at setting ranging from a sketch comedy competition to a benefit for the Anorexia Nervosa Association. Much of the humor is, appropriately enough, psychology-themed: In a video Carbonell sent me, one scene involved a diagnostic evaluation for panic attacks. In another, a performer assumed the character of Dr. Generic, who attempted to cure a patient using types of therapy suggested by the audience (these ran the gamut from exposure therapy to aromatherapy).

Carbonell also refers some of his patients with less severe cases of social anxiety to Improv for Anxiety, a joint venture of Chicago’s Panic/Anxiety Recovery Center (PARC) and the comedy club Second City. The eight-week program consists of weekly improv training taught by a Second City instructor, paired with weekly CBT group sessions led by PARC.

Mark Pfeffer, the director of PARC and one of the founders of Improv for Anxiety, believes that the best way to help people combat anxiety is to put them in situations that provoke it. Improv, he said, helps enhance an individual’s ability and desire to take risks.

“Certainly we’re not going to cure someone in eight weeks from a lifetime of mild to moderate social anxiety; however, what we look for is changes in their behavior and their thinking,” Pfeffer told me.

A handful of programs similar to Pfeffer’s have cropped up around the world to  help people with anxiety. The School of Laughter in London, for example, runs an Improv for Anxiety workshop that encourages participants to “laugh in the face of fear.”

Another program, the Improv Social Skills Group at Vanderbilt University, accepts eight students per semester for six 90-minute sessions. “If you think of yourself as sitting back and watching all the fun happen without you, or feel unable to break into a conversation without feeling your face is on fire, or if you just wonder if your conversational skills are holding you back from better engagement on social or academic levels, you might consider attending,” reads the description on Vanderbilt’s Psychological and Counseling Center, which runs the group.

At least two research efforts are currently underway to assess just how effective improv is in helping with anxiety. One is a study of the Improv for Anxiety program, led by Greg Poljacik, a researcher at the University of Chicago and a stage-combat teacher at Second City. Before and after completing the program, study participants fill out the Liebowitz Social Anxiety Scale, which measures fear of certain everyday activities (like using a telephone in public, or speaking up at a meeting). Poljacik and his colleagues, who have been collecting data for the past year, plan to include a total of 50 participants in the study, along with a control group.

Kristin Krueger, a neuropsychologist at the John H. Stroger Jr. Hospital in Chicago and a member of the Therapy Players, is conducting another study evaluating the effects of improv on people with anxiety. Krueger started taking improv classes in 2006, she says, and became curious about the potential cognitive benefits. She’s drawn to improv, she said, because it isn’t about “getting it right”—a liberating departure from the pressures of a life in academia.

Krueger now runs what she calls “thera-prov” for patients who come to Stroger seeking treatment for anxiety or depression. In small weekly group sessions, Krueger uses pre- and post-meeting evaluations to measure five outcomes that she thinks improv may influence: symptoms of anxiety and depression, perfectionism, satisfaction with social roles, and self esteem.

By mid-October, 35 patients will have completed Krueger’s program, and she plans to soon begin writing up her results to submit for publication. Krueger, who was trained in CBT, views improv as complementary to CBT’s goals.

“When we try to change people’s thoughts, it’s a long process because not everybody is that verbally talented, or that cerebral,” said Krueger. “What’s great about improv is that you can change your mood without knowing exactly why you’ve changed it.”

Priscillia Seelan


This article was originally published at


Though the art/life debate is similar to that of the chicken/egg, I am a firm believer that much can be gained from taking a look at art to reflect on our life (take the “What I Learned From” series for example).  With that in mind, I also believe that many of the tips that make us better artists, also make us better people.

So I present here 10 life tips I learned from improv classes at the Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theater.

1. “Dare to be dull.”

When most people start improvising, they think they need to create crazy characters and wacky situations to be funny.  But the reality is that comedy comes from truth–it doesn’t need flashing lights or fancy fog machines.  The same is true when it comes to certain work and life situations.  Success isn’t about getting the newest gadget (aka the flashing lights); success comes from hard-work and planning, which might be viewed as dull, but it is effective.

“A well-managed factory is boring.” – Peter F. Drucker

2. “Make a connection with the other player.”

Improv is a team-sport, as are work and life.  To have a successful improv scene, you must connect to the other player and focus on your relationship.  It’s easy to forget about this when performing on a stage in front of people, and just as easy to forget when trying to make a sale or talking to our significant other.   But life is about relationships and connections, not material objects or status.

“Only a life lived for others is worth living.” – Albert Einstein

3. “Make it about the present.”

To see two characters reminisce about their history or to talk about future plans is boring to the audience–we want to see them act now.  Life is the same way, except we’re the characters.  Too often we are caught up in one happened awhile ago or what we should plan for, and we completely ignore the present, the now.  By focusing on the now we start to take control and experience life, instead of missing it.

“Life is what happens while you’re busy making plans.” – John Lennon

4. “You have to understand why you’re playing that game.”

As an improviser, one of the most important qualities you have to reveal as your character is your motivation.  Why are you doing what you are doing? This question is equally valuable in every day life–what is your motivation for doing whatever it is you are doing? If you ask yourself this about everything, you’ll realize there’s a number of things that you do out of habit or because it’s a societal norm that you aren’t really motivated or excited to do.  Stop them.

“If a man hasn’t discovered something that he will die for, he isn’t fit to live.” – Martin Luther King Jr.

5. “Never expect a certain answer or reaction.  Just listen and react to what wasactually said.”

Our education system has taught us to listen to react–to start to formulate an answer for the question our teacher is asking us, before she’s even finished asking it.  The problem is that in meetings and conversations, we stop listening once we think we know what someone is going to say because we start thinking about our response–often missing the true point of what is being said.  If you want to be a better communicator, stop assuming you know what is being communicated and start listening to what is actually being said.

“Seek first to understand, then to be understood” – Stephen R. Covey

6. “Make your fellow players look like geniuses.”

When you treat other people like geniuses, you’ll often find that they are.  Too often we look at what mistakes people have made instead of seeing what they’ve done correctly.  When you look for the positives and build on successes, your team (or family) can achieve far better success both as individuals and as a team.

“Treat a man as he is and he will remain as he is. Treat a man as he can be and should be and he will become as he can and should be.” – Goethe

7. “It doesn’t matter what you’re doing on stage, as long as you sell it.”

This is known as the “Karaoke Rule”–you don’t have to be the greatest singer to be good at karaoke, you just have to sell it.  If you don’t, people will pick up on your  nervousness and you’ll lose them as an audience.  So whether you are standing in front of your managers giving a presentation or about to belt out the words to Bohemian Rhapsody, you’ll find much better success by giving it your all and selling it.

“All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence; then success is sure.” – Mark Twain

8. “Be more brave than impressive.”

When I first started performing improv, I thought I always had to try to come up with the wittiest thing to say or add wordplay or puns to get a laugh (hey, I enjoy puns).  While wit can be funny, it’s not what entertains the audience–bold choices are.  What you’ll soon find out is that being bold is what makes you impressive, regardless of what you are doing.

“Whatever you do or dream, you can begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.” – William Hutchinson Mary (thanks for the correction, Adam!)

9. “Just make a choice.”

Ambivalence and timidness are the death of an improviser on stage.  Since everything is made up, you just have to make a decision and go with it.  Once you make a decision, it’s up to you and your scene partner to go with it and make it work.  In life, we don’t get things done because we haven’t decided what we want, and until we do, we’ll never be able to achieve it.  Make a choice, that’s the start.

“The first step to getting the things you want out of life is this: Decide what you want.” – Ben Stein

10. “When in doubt, have fun.”

Sometimes, before a big show, I make sure I remind myself that improv is fun–that’s why I do it.  I step on stage to have fun and entertain others.  So when I’m in a scene and I’m not sure what else to do, I do what is fun; I play games, I make interesting choices, and I enjoy myself.  Because in improv there is no right or wrong, just fun.  By now you should know what I’m going to say–life is the same way.  Excluding immoral / illegal activities, there is no wrong in life, only what you choose to make it.  So when in doubt, choose fun.