Improving Mental Wellness with Improvisation

What is improvisation, anyway? Google a definition and you’ll get “the act of improvising” – helpful, isn’t it? Let’s try looking up “improvising” then: “producing or making (something) from whatever is available.”  There we go! That we can work with. Improvisation, broadly speaking, is the art of making something from what’s available. There’s a good chance that thinking about improvisation brings to mind comedians like Colin Mochrie, Ryan Stiles, or Wayne Brady and their run on “Whose Line is it Anyway?” for some folks. You might think of Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, or Kate McKinnon. Saturday Night Live is probably up there. Some of the best moments in movies were totally unscripted and improvised. Pretty much all of Robin Williams’ lines in Aladdin (heck, most of Robin Williams’ work). Miracle Max in The Princess Bride. Willie Wonka’s summersault. The jewelry scene in Pretty Woman.

Responding, Not Reacting

So what the heck makes improvisation a good pick for this week’s theme? It’s right up there in that definition – making something from whatever is available. It’s about taking what you have on hand, what you’ve experienced and know, new things and old, and making something else from it all, to deal with whatever it is that’s going on. It would be easy enough to get hung up on the idea that improvisation is just reacting to the situation at hand and hoping for the best. But those folks listed before? What makes them really good at what they do? It’s not reacting but responding. It’s taking everything they’ve done before, everything they’re noticing in the moment, and thinking – very quickly – and offering up a response. It doesn’t form in a vacuum. It’s forged in the furnace of experience.

Some Practice Ideas for Mental Health

Getting through life, in a lot of ways, is about learning to improvise – make something from whatever is available. If you’re a parent, you probably improvise all the time. Forget to go grocery shopping and have a kid’s lunch to put together? Are you in a relationship? Ever forget something important and have to come up with something on the fly? As I sat down to write the theme for this week, I did some online digging about ways to be a better improviser, and I chuckled at how many of those tips mapped perfectly to ways to have a better life or to improve your mental health:
  • Learning to embrace your power and your fear
  • Feeling confident that whatever exists inside you is enough to deal with any situation that arises
  • Being a good, active listener
  • Being a better collaborator
  • Learn to be adaptable
  • Work on creativity and curiosity
  • Being in touch with your emotions
  • Be patient and practice
  • Think about the audience, if it doesn’t make sense to you, it won’t make sense to them
So this week, spend some time practicing those things. Let yourselves be curious. Work on being better listeners. Embrace your power and your fear. Really work on NOTICING. And when something comes up that you need to deal with, remember to take a deep breath, think about your audience, and respond to that situation by drawing on everything you’ve got at hand. For some inspiration, watch just about ANYTHING with Robin Williams in it, especially his live stuff where he interacts with the audience. Google “Whose Line is it Anyway?” and watch an episode or two. To really stretch your muscles, take an improv class some time (a lot of places have ‘Drop in’ nights where anyone is welcome to come.)