What I’m hearing from my students:
Members of my Senior Improv Group (who incidently HATE being referred to as “Seniors” or even worse “Older Adults” unless there’s a significant discount involved) have reported some interesting results of their work as improvisers. Here are a couple of examples:
A student in his 70’s, who enjoyed a career as a stand up comedian, suffers from very bad rheumatoid arthritis and walks with the help of a cane. One day, after being a member of the workshop for a couple of months, he volunteered to go on stage to be part of an improv. When he got to the stage, he and the other actor took a suggestion for the improv. Just as they were about to begin, he yelled “Stop! I have to go get my cane” which was as usual, slung over the back of his chair where he had been sitting. He took one step towards his chair and it dawned on him – he hadn’t needed his cane to walk to the stage, and in fact, he had done his last couple of improvs without the use of his cane. He shared this realization with the class. No one else had noticed that this student, who came to the class totally dependent on the use of a cane, was now going to the stage and acting in improvs completely caneless. To this day, he uses his cane to move around in his daily life, except when he is on stage improvising.
Conclusion: When I tell my students in warm up exercises, to borrow Viola Spolin’s phrase “Let the space support you”, who knew how literally this direction could be taken!
In 2006, a few days before we were about to begin rehearsal for our first multi-generational improv show with the “Broadway Braves” from Van Nuys, California Birmingham High School Theater Department, one of my senior improvisers, a former psychotherapist, who still volunteers to do psychological counseling for low income groups, at hospitals and where ever she is needed, suffered a light stroke. She told me a week later that the first thing she asked her doctor when she had gotten her speech back, and he diagnosed what had happened to her, was “Will I still be able to do improv”. He told her it would be a while. But she was not willing to wait a while. She had strong instincts about the elements of her own healing process. She was back the next week and with a slight limp, slightly slurred speech and more than ready to take on the rigors of rehearsing the mostly improvised show. She told me she wanted to be in as much of the show as I would let her be. I had no qualms about putting her in pivotal roles in a few scenes. As shows almost always go, there were moments when people had their doubts about whether it would all come together for opening night. But one thing was clear from the very beginning. Improv and the responsibilities of being there for the rest of the actors was working wonders on my “post stroke” student. Her speech was improving, her face which had been slightly limp on one side was getting back to normal and day by day her eyes increasingly glowed with their normal bright intelligence as she took on the job of “acting coach” helping some rather nervous fifteen year olds get into roles they were having problems with – ironically enough, playing rather nervous fifteen year olds.
The show was a solid success and this student was one of the main reasons. She was a director’s dream. All I had to do was suggest slight adjustments to her acting and never hold back on telling her the truth – that she was making an amazing recovery.
One day, a young woman (who I’ll call Jill), looking haggard, much too thin and just plain sick came to the class driven there and escorted by a slightly older woman (I’ll call her Annie), very attractive, vivacious and cheery, who turned out to be Jill’s older sister. Jill, I learned, was battling cancer. Annie, her primary
caretaker, had no interest in doing improv herself, but felt that an improv class might give her younger sister a chance to laugh, lift her out of her depression and who knows, maybe have some healing effect. Though sick, Jill gave it her all. She came to classes for a while, chauffeured by Annie, who sat and watched. until one day when she was coaxed into getting up to perform with the group, and turned out to have excellent improv instincts and natural stage presence. Jill and Annie became regular members of the class. One day, Annie came alone. She explained that Jill had taken a turn for the worse. The students embraced Annie, and told her to please keep coming to our class. She did, regularly giving not very encouraging reports on Jill’s situation, but always bringing great humor and charm to all her stage work.
Then Annie stopped coming. Her classmates got emails with news about Jill’s worsening condition and that Annie was back east, trying to help. Just last week she returned, after attending to Jill’s burial. Annie was in mourning, but in class. The class members, who by this time had celebrated New Year’s Eve, birthdays, and “wrap parties” together, now celebrated Jill’s life. My students told Annie how much they admired her for standing by her sister and being a source of love and support for her. Annie responded with humility.
“Jill gave me a lot,” Annie said. “I first brought her here because I thought that improv might help her heal. It turns out, she was the one who was bringing me here to this class. This has been such a tough and painful year, and you guys are helping me to heal.” There were hugs, tears, and then later, with everyone on the stage, there was laughter.