‘I love improv’, said a student, looking me intently in the eyes, ‘It’s so much cheaper than a shrink’. We are leaning on a bar after class (his third). He bottom-lips beer froth off a thick mustache and looks towards the dartboard, considering what he could buy with the money he has saved. A potters wheel maybe, or a greenhouse. He wouldn’t be the first to imprint on me like a baby duck, and he certainly wouldn’t be the first person to compare improv to therapy. (Two of the people who came to our retreat are members of teams with the word ‘therapy’ in their names.) I am a decent enough improv teacher passing on the work of smarter and wiser folks, and improv done well is transformative.
Now I see why he said what he said: for many (including myself) improv can have a sense of coming home, of finding your people and the way of being that allows you to face and express yourself. Improvisers often refer to their teams as families. I am out of London now but used to love the sensation of going to an improv venue alone and seeing people I knew anyway. It felt (apologies for the word) natural. Healthy. A village organised by shared passion rather than geography.
I have absolutely no statistics for this, but I would think that neurodiversity and mental illness are significantly higher among improvisers than among the general population. It’s a community based on fluidity of identity, accepting people where they are and forgetting what’s outside the room. It gives a sense of power and agency, and that will almost inevitably attract a certain kind of person. Try finding an improviser who has not been bullied or excluded at some point in their life. It’s a tough ask. So hello, I have generalised anxiety disorder and suffer from depression. I take my pills, meditate and exercise where I can. I try to laugh at myself, be a good dad and get decent sleep. Some weeks, it works.
To be clear, my issue here is not with therapy. Therapy is great. Shout out to Karen, who I see Thursdays at 11 am. She’s calm, insightful, and doesn’t take any of my bullshit. What troubles me is therapisation; the concept creep therapy ideas into other areas of life, and with it, the expectation that those other things can replace or even emulate therapy.
Among them: improv. It’s so easy for what we do to get shot through with the language of actualisation and boundaries, of doing the work and trauma. As our awareness of mental illness grows, these words are more than ever in the public discourse. That normalises the discussion of mental illness. But it also risks reducing the impact of the words through overuse. Badly understood terms badly applied can be dangerous.
Improv is a wonderful context to challenge yourself, but for us improv teachers there is a real danger that we let this go to our heads: when people tell us it’s like therapy, we can swell in the chest and the ego. The pandemic exacerbated this danger. Working from home and locked down with people whose eccentricities they were normally able to avoid, improvisers flocked to online classes for a little bit of normal. Checking in and out became the norm and we improv teachers were suddenly unlicensed and untrained keepers of sanity. At times it went well and at times it didn’t. We all did our best. Now things are open again, it is essential we establish the difference between one thing and the other. Improv and therapy should be kept firmly separate.
Because improv is cheaper than therapy the same way that a yoga class is cheaper than a hip replacement. They involve the same part of the body, but the difference in scale is so great that few useful comparisons can be made.
So I am not your therapist. I do not know how to deal with your compulsions, phobias, and bad habits any more than I do my own. If you actually think you need therapy, then I recommend this: therapy. It’s hardly the point, but it will also make you a better improviser.