Can taking an improv class cure my S.A.D.?

This is the story of how an anxious cat named Honey stole an improv show at Steel Stacks.

A little penguin robot watches over Honey when I’m not home. While I was gardening in Mexico last winter, the penguin’s non-descript face would light up red to warn her of my incoming calls. She’d offer a string of meows and tell me all about the train going by. I’d tell her in my highest pitch that the weather is much better in Merida and I might be flying her out to start a new life with my Latin lover. She’d roll her eyes, then knock over the penguin.

To brighten up this winter, my new year’s resolution was more of an experiment. Instead of traveling to a sunny spot in the south, I stood my ground here. Every week, I’d muster the energy to walk the few paces from my apartment to the Banana Factory with one question on my mind: Can taking a standup comedy class cure my S.A.D.?

A scripted writer walks into improv

Improv and standup comedian Addyson Teal.
Improv and standup comedian Addyson Teal.

The first walk-in class of 2020 was improv. I thought I’d give it a try. As I was making my way there, I checked in with Honey on the penguin. When I looked up I met two delightful humans, our teachers Addyson Teal and Sarah White.

Introductions were a little unconventional. We started off “passing energy” with a game of “zip, zap, zop.” Then, each of us used alliteration to give an extra punch to our first names – I was Sentimental Sienna, then there was Bobbing Bob, Creative Christine, and our “classroom buddy” Sassy Sarah. To keep the energy flowing, we’d add a sound and gesture to go with it. I made a -V- with my palms below my chin and whispered “Sentimental Sienna” then passed the energy to “Bobbing Bob” and so forth.

Scenes felt a little stressful as we were thinking what to say and do and how to move on the spot. It all comes back to: Who are we? Where are we? What are we doing? How are we feeling?

In my writer’s mind, that means character, setting, plot, personality with a dash of motivation. This is easier for me to do on paper than in a room full of humans influencing the story. Amazed by the constant positive feedback – Addy and Sarah’s genuine cheers of joy – I hadn’t felt this supported in a creative space for a long time.

So I had gotten my feet wet. But my comfort zone is scripted! “Where do I register for standup?” I asked Sassy Sarah. She said, “I do standup too! Improv is a great way to learn how to fill those awkward gaps and make them fun.”

That made sense and we did have a ton of fun. I’d be coming back for improv next week. Zip zap zop.

Improv 101 a.k.a. ‘Daddy Cat Daddy’

Improv standup comedian Sarah White.
Improvised standup comedian Sarah White.

Bugs with big photographed personalities greeted us in the Banko Gallery. Troupe members I’d come to know as a dental hygienist with massive range, a graphic designer who undeniably looks like ZZ Top, and a couple boys in their early 20s who have less filtered filters than the rest of us. Getting to know each other involved getting acquainted with an invisible gracious goat named Gregory. That’s all the inside scoop you will get on Gregory. Know that he is very grand, and like the dental hygienist, has a massive range for adopting character traits.

We warmed up on what Sarah called the “Park Bench of Truth” where two people have an open, honest conversation based on a random one-word suggestion. Other ways we got to play were pretending to be on Second Dates, an opportunity for us to work on listening and to stay present.

After a few weeks, our awkward Tinder dates turned into full-blown scenes. One guy I will always remember as being raised by birds, another couple got cold feet while flying to Mars, a goldfish inspector rekindled a relationship with a certain housewife, and between squirrels wearing top hats and the shady ice cream sprinkle dealers on the sidelines, we even made space for taking spin classes during the apocalypse.

It all comes back to: Who are we? Where are we? What are we doing? How are we feeling? Questions that we’d answer during quick “layups” (Sarah is also a basketball coach) I also found very grounding.

To take our scenes above and beyond, this one still gets my writer gears turning: “If this is true what else is true?”

Ooh, that had me hooked.

Then we learned how to do a full set. Based on a one-word non-food suggestion from the audience, one of us would step off the backline and tell a story. Then another, then a third. Inspired by a certain detail, character, place or feeling from one of these stories/monologues, pairs would step out and perform scenes.

“What if my monologue sucks?” I asked.

“It just has to be honest,” Sarah reassured me. “All the group needs are a few details to grab onto.”

These are known in the writing world as “telling details.” I could hack this.

Improv 101 Graduation Show at Steel Stacks

Improv 101 Graduation Show at Steel Stacks, Bethlehem, PA. Thursday, Feb. 20.
Improv 101.

So we all set the intention to just have fun. If we were having fun, the audience would too. Plus it’s Steel Stacks on a Thursday. Fortunately, not too many people saw me fall face down on the stage during the dress rehearsal.  

After I took the “break a leg” suggestion too literally, an inside joke became our troupe name, “Daddy Cat Daddy,” and quite fittingly, Sarah called us her “kittens …”

… which brings me to Honey. Since the audience put out those pet vibes, I seized the chance to share a story about my cat. When I adopted Honey, she was seven months old, a shy skittish rescue. This ruffian (not sure where that word came from) would hide in the basement of my house underneath a woodpile. Tempting with a laser and countless treats, I’d coax her up the stairs and then she’d return to her rubble. How could she live her best life in a basement?

I gave her space, as recommended by the vet, and it worked! Then came the tip-tap of her overgrown nails up the basement stairs and all the way up to the attic where I was writing on my laptop. This shy little thing suddenly had a lot to say – she talked my ear off. In hindsight, what she was really saying (in cat) is: “You know if we got an apartment we wouldn’t have to climb so many stairs!”

So I took her advice. While researching how to transition an anxious cat to a new home (because it didn’t go well the first time) I splurged on chamomile infused treats and a special diffuser and some sort of hormonal wipes. Move out day was stressful. We created a safe space for her in the house with all those treats and hormones. I finally returned to get one last thing – my precious Honey – and she had fled to the basement under the same woodpile. All the progress we had made, gone.

Much to my relief, the laser trick coaxed her into the carrier. We finally got the apartment. I carried her up the stairs. All the stress-relief diffusers going, I carefully open the carrier and she walks out … tail straight up and says (in cat): “Oh, this is nice! I’ve been saying all along we needed a change!”

As Honey tossed around her chamomile treats like toys, I inhaled a pot of chamomile tea. Maybe I should have done more research on how to transition a human.

Real talk on the Park Bench of Truth

This is the story of how my cat Honey overcame her anxiety.
Honey Bunches of Oats!

If we had all the time in the world on the Park Bench of Truth, I’d explain why she was so scared in that house and share the backstory of the woodpile. But we don’t have time for that at improv, and that’s okay. Zip zap zop. People want to laugh – people need to laugh. All you really need to know is who she is today, the squeaky slinky of a cat who has a lot to say.  

During the scenes, I watched in awe how my troupe members could transform Honey the Cat into a quirky sales lady at an herbal shop and the rubble of wood she used to hide under could be used to make a pirate ship. These telling details created new stories.

This was incredibly healing for me in ways I could only tell you on the Park Bench of Truth. Let’s just say Sarah’s words from class rang so true: “It doesn’t matter if it’s good because once it’s out there, it’s gone.”

My bad memories had lifted and new ones had replaced them with comic relief.

Telling a story about my jumpy cat, on stage, without warning quieted my anxiety (and my seasonal depression). I’m just as surprised as you are.

Since rubbing elbows with the local comedy crew, I’ve learned I’m not yet in a place where I can develop my character with another person long-term. I spent years playing a role and I just want to be myself. And I’m grateful to have found a circle where I feel comfortable sharing stories and experiencing how it evolves through others’ interpretations – more alive than ever.

Those who love to bring laughter often need it the most. We swap frowning and smiling drama masks at the drop of a hat. I’ve found a tribe where I can explore the laughing half of my writer’s self. Comedy is a toddler distracting me from my work, and I love it. Now if writer’s block creeps in, I can rely on that dynamic relationship.

What is improv?

Improv is vulnerable. Improv is safe. It might feel like only you on the stage, nothing to hold onto, no drums sticks, no script – just your wits. Improv is also the headspace you may have left behind in childhood, where you can revive your old playmates and invent new ones. At improv, you are not alone.

Sometimes we save it for therapy. Other times we save it for the page, or the stage. All the while, we work that story muscle. My comfort zone is scripted. Whenever I want to venture off-script, I know where to go.

If you’re curious how improv can lift your spirits, join mental health and improv professional Emily Kreiger for “Improv Anxiety: A Workshop,” Sunday, March 22 at the Banana Factory. Tickets here.

2 thoughts on “Can taking an improv class cure my S.A.D.?

  1. I loved reading this article, and I am glad that I made it to Improv 101, Graduation at SteelStacks on Feb. 20th, a family fun night♡ And you my dear were great on the stage, adorable, honest, truthful, and at ease, you had fun to be there, and we had fun watching you and the whole show♡ We’l be there to witness the next act♡ Until then live a joyful life ❤

    Like

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