Improvisation as Therapy

Improvisation as Therapy

by Anthony Teles
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Mental illness targets everybody in its own unique way, and we each have our tailor-made tale to share. My depression and anxiety reached their apex in 2011. One of the things that turned the tide in positive favour of my mental health was my time at the Second City. The longstanding improvisational comedy theatre took me on as an intern behind the scenes, and I used that opportunity to pursue their many improv classes. The world of improvisation acted not only as a reprieve from my suffering, but also as a form of therapy that, along with other forms of help, aided in my recovery.

The Second City schools of Toronto, Ontario and Chicago, Illinois offer improvisation courses specifically geared to anxiety. These include classes for those aged 12 to 14 and 15 to 18. These offerings utilize licenced therapists and the ideas behind cognitive behavioural therapy, commonly referred to as CBT. The latter played a huge role in my journey, not only in improv classes but also with my CBT therapist. This form of therapy analyzes how different situations trigger certain thoughts that lead to specific emotions and behaviours. CBT forces you to challenge recurring thoughts that contribute to feelings of depression and detrimental actions.

Improvisation itself can act as a form of therapy partly because of the similarities between the two. A patient must be able to trust their therapist and spend sessions in intense discussion requiring attentiveness, with neither party fully knowing where the talks will lead. Similarly, improv participants must trust one another, and never know what will come up in improvisational games or where the dialogue will take them. One of the core concepts of improvising is “yes, and.” In this exercise, one performer makes a statement, which the other performer must accept and then add to. This is repeated back and forth to build a dialogue. Therapists encourage their patients with similar positivity, as the profession requires a lack of judgement towards clients. Both the therapist’s office and improvisation classroom are safe spaces to talk freely and share ideas without judgment.

Improv classes help quell the inhibitions and self-censorship that form the crux of social anxiety. When an improv game goes well, it encourages you to try again and with slightly lower levels of anxiety. Even when a game does not go well, you learn that this is not the end of the world. The nature of improvisation requires you to shut down the parts of your brain that make you think before you speak and question your abilities. By coupling that with the teamwork aspects of the classroom, you learn to interact with others while being free of judgment.

I took both improvisation and writing classes while interning at the Second City. Watching the professional performers put on the stage gave me a chance to meet the talent backstage. I will never forget how calm they were away from their audience – their quiet confidence was surely a key component to their success. I made friends in the classes I took that I still have to this day. Both the writing and improv groups encouraged me to share things I never would have shared, talk to people I otherwise would have never spoken with, and put myself in uncomfortable situations I never would have dared to otherwise. It was therapeutic, eye-opening, and a very important step in the right direction. Looking back now, as I sit here in a much healthier state of mind, I cannot understate the importance of those classes. I benefited greatly from them. Yes, and you can too.


“Improv for Anxiety.” The Second City. https://www.secondcity.com/class-series/improv-anxiety-ages-12-18/

Toohill, Kathleen. “So Funny, It Doesn’t Hurt.” The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/09/comedy-improv-anxiety/403933/

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