Be fearless in pursuit of what sets your soul on fire

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“Mistakes can be a beautiful thing in improv. We just need to learn to accept and embrace them,”  says Alia DeSantis, a Toronto-based actress and improviser.

When Alia DeSantis was younger, her mother had taped a note to their mirror that said “Be fearless in pursuit of what sets your soul on fire.”

It’s a common adage (sadly, a two-minute Google search didn’t identify who first coined it) that inspires us to find something that excites us, that sets our soul on fire, and to pursuit it relentlessly.

Anyways, let’s meet Alia, a Toronto-based actress and improviser, who knew since she was a child that she wanted to become a performer. “When [my mother] found out I wanted to be an actress, she set the note on fire,” Alia said while laughing. “Just kidding! My mother suggested I become a doctor when I grow up. My response? ‘Why be a doctor when I can play a doctor?'”

How did you get into improv?

I did a little improv in my high school drama class, but only really got involved with it when I was at Humber College. Like many improvisers, I grew up watching Whose Line Is It Anyway? and was completely enthralled by it. I’ve always been drawn to comedy, but improvisation held a special place in my heart. I find the whole thing very surreal but in the best way possible.

What has the journey been like for you after getting started in improv?

It has been an incredible journey thus far, and it’s only just the beginning! I’m still fairly new to the scene, but have absolutely fallen in love with performing, and hope to be doing it for a long time to come. I’ve been very fortunate and have had the opportunity to work with some incredibly talented people on some insanely fun shows. I’ve only been performing for about two and a half years, but the amount I have been able to do, and the amount I’ve grown as a performer and as an individual is immeasurable.

What would you say is your biggest accomplishment as an improviser?

I’d have to say my biggest accomplishment would be BOOZE CLUES, a monthly show I produce. There have definitely been other shows I’ve been a part of which I would consider to be huge milestones, but nothing compares to this. This is the first time I’ve ever created, produced and performed in the same show, and the whole experience has been eye-opening. To say it’s a lot of work would be an understatement, and I’m probably greying early from the stress of it all, but it has been such an insane process and so unbelievably worth it. I get to perform with my favourite people in a show I love and hold very near and dear to my heart. It’s like a dream come true, and next month we have Colin Mochrie joining us, so it literally will be a dream come true!

Do you have any favourite scenes?

All of them! Haha. I find it way more fun to be weird and absurd. I’ve played an animated broom, a male pirate, velociraptors (yes, more than once), Josh Murray’s father as a literal helicopter, and the groundhog from Groundhog Day. Recently however a very unusual thing happened to me on stage. Somehow in the course of the set I had cut my knee and it started to bleed pretty bad. I was oblivious to it, and continued to power through although I’m sure everyone in the audience was cringing. Tom Hearn was playing my son, and he had been killed in a zombie attack, (but not by a zombie, by Amanda Parker who was playing a visually impaired sniper). Cameron Algie and I laid on top of Tom in a Disney-like fashion to bring him back to life, and in the course of it all my blood ended up getting all over Tom’s arm. When he noticed I thought for sure he was going to pass out or puke on stage. The whole thing was absolutely bonkers, and the audience was going crazy. Tom and I have never been closer as we now share a blood pact.

How has improv made a difference in your life?

Improv has had such an incredibly positive impact on my life, and I honestly can’t imagine where I would be or who I would be without it. Some of my closest friends are ones I met through performing, and not only do they play big roles in my life, they have also shaped the person I am today. Improv is a great source of joy, laughter and creativity, and I am so fortunate to be part of such a special community.

Can you tell me about a time you’ve messed up on stage and just rolled with it?

I did a BeerProv show a while back, and made it to the final four (meaning I had to do a hoedown). For anyone who watches Whose Line?, it’s the exact same as they do in the show. You’re given a suggestion from the audience, and you have sing and rhyme eight bars worth of music. I really enjoy doing hoedowns, even though it feels like your heart and brain will explode in the seconds leading up to it. This particular time I had come up with the most perfect rhyme and was so ready for my part. However, when I opened my mouth to sing, what came out wasn’t English. It was like my brain malfunctioned, and every letter of the alphabet came out at once. I tried to power through it, but just kept spewing jibberish. Finally, I broke and started to laugh on stage. The audience got quite a kick out of it all too. Instead of allowing that situation to defeat me, I took a deep breath, waited for the song to cue up again and began to sing. Sure, I looked like a goof, but I had a great time and was able to laugh it off. Mistakes can be a beautiful thing in improv. We just need to learn to accept and embrace them.

Where can we see you on stage?

I perform monthly (2nd Friday of every month) in BOOZE CLUES at Bad Dog Theatre.

Is there anything else you would like to add or anything you would like to plug?

YES! BOOZE CLUES at Bad Dog Theatre is coming up on Friday, August 10th. We have Colin Mochrie joining us, and we will be donating all the proceeds to Rainbow Camp. It will be wonderful evening full of laughter and love, supporting both live comedy and the LGBTQ+ community.

Tickets are $15 and available at: www.baddogtheatre.com/booze-clues

More info:
Facebook : www.facebook.com/boozeclues.to
Instagram: @boozeclues.to

Thank you for sharing your story, Alia!

The magic of improv

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“Some days just going into a theatre is a huge accomplishment. Sometimes just putting on pants is a huge accomplishment. It’s all relative,” improviser Dan Frampton, pictured right, said. Photo credit: Brent Robichaud

As Toronto improviser Dan Frampton says, “I couldn’t have found a better thing to have in my life.”

I could not agree more. For me, improv has been like a fun and awesome but unpredictable friend, who forces me out of my comfort zone. “Hey dude, we should get up on stage together. And you should get down on the stage floor like a rat. It will be funny,” improv would say to me. You may be scared initially of hanging out with your friend named Improv, but you learn to love him.

Anyways, let’s meet Dan, who recently graduated from the improv programs at Second City and The Assembly. He’s also a singer, songwriter and vocalist with his band, The Dean Project, which he describes as an acoustic spoof act that satirizes music culture. They toured the country with their makeshift drum, a three-foot-tall plastic nutcracker named Munchie.

Disclaimer: Dan and I were classmates together at Second City. He’s a friend and he’s awesome. Here’s what he had to say about his journey in improv.

How did you get into improv?

Unfortunately, this is where the story takes a bit of a dark turn. While driving home from a show in Peterborough, we were hit by a transport truck. My best friend, and namesake of the group, Dean, didn’t survive the wreck. The five years that followed were the hardest years I could imagine having. It took much soul searching and episodes of Frasier for me to realize what I needed in this new life of mine.

Then one day, I started thinking, “Hey, just do improv. The Dean Project was just an untrained musical improv troupe. Just learn this fer realz.” So, I dropped into Second City and the romance began.

I’m so sorry to hear about your friend. What has the journey been like for you after getting started in improv?

It’s actually been so fucking crazy. Life-changingly crazy. I find that improv fucks with my head in so many beautiful ways. One day, in one scene, a concept makes total sense. It works! Yay, laughs! The next day, in a new scene, that concept ruins everything. Boo, no laughs! The learning, I feel, is all in the play. The “rules” don’t dictate what’s good. That immediate response from the audience tells you what’s good. And I love that! That constant discovery is what keeps me going.

What would you say is your biggest accomplishment as an improviser?

Some days just going into a theatre is a huge accomplishment. Sometimes just putting on pants is a huge accomplishment. It’s all relative.

I totally agree. Just putting on pants is an achievement for me. Do you have any favourite scenes?

I was doing a jam at The Social Capital. My character was a waiter. Every offer made him need to pee more. Halfway through the scene my nose actually started bleeding, giving my character the motivation to run to the bathroom. I yelled “I can’t work anymore” and ran to the actual bathroom. To this day, the SoCap 3rd floor stage has a bit of Dan Frampton DNA soaked into it. Totally gross, man!

How has improv made a difference in your life?

It’s a whole new life. I couldn’t have found a better thing to have in my life. I truly love improv. I love warm-ups. I love short form games. I love classes and drop-ins. I’m in love with long form. But to me, it’s all about the community and the shows! I’m often not the best in social scenarios and the politics of the scene sometimes really fuck with me. Those are things that I’m always working on. I’m endlessly thankful to have a community where I get to work on some shit with.

Can you tell me about a time you’ve messed up on stage and just rolled with it?

I’d say my improv style consists of only mistakes and trying to dig myself out.

Where can we see you on stage?

I’m not playing on many stages these days. Mainly because “improv audition” is a major oxymoron to me. It bends my brain in many unnatural ways. Improv is an in- the-moment experience. It lives and dies simultaneously. To bring that to a panel of judges seems unfair me. I’ll be going to events that I see posted online. While there, I’ll be doing my best to make friends. If there’s a jam, I’ll likely play. That is unless I don’t like the host!

Is there anything else you would like to add or anything you would like to plug?

I’m producing my very first show on August 16 at The Social Capital Theatre. The Social Capital has been a very important to me. It’s my improv home. It’s a magically place to me. I wish Ralph MacLeod and Carmine Lucarelli, the owners, knew how much I love and appreciate them. It means the world to me to have my show up on their stage.

It’s an experimental long form format that I came up with and want to try. It’s called Total Fucking Chaos. I’m hosting it in my Dean Project persona with our resident nutcracker, Munchie. It’s going to be a mix of all my favourite things. Punk rock, pro wrestling and long form improv. Be there!

Another disclaimer: I will be performing in Dan’s show, Total Fucking Chaos, so you should really check it out. 

Thank you so much for sharing, Dan! Improv has definitely become one of the best things in my life and I don’t know what I would do without it.

Feeling like your best self

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“I truly feel like I’m my best self when I’m hosting,” says improviser and producer Tyler Morgan.

As improviser Tyler Morgan says, “I just need to be myself and that’s enough.” And he’s absolutely right. Since pursuing improv last year, I felt myself becoming more confident and more comfortable in my own skin.

Anyways, let’s meet Tyler, an improviser who moved to Toronto from Winnipeg five years ago. Now, he performs sketch and improv all over Toronto. He also produces the monthly show Zero Hour Improv at Comedy Bar, now celebrating its two-year anniversary (let’s have some cake!). Tyler opens up about how he got into improv and how he feels like his best self while on stage.

How did you get into improv?

Improv was a secret art form that I had watched on “Whose Line is it Anyway?” but I had no idea how to learn it. I did some research and found the Manitoba Theatre for Young People. One of the classes they taught was improv. The only thing standing in my way was my mom. My mom at this point thought I was going to be a businessman or a lawyer. Comedy wasn’t even in sight at this point. I gathered up my courage to ask her to sign me up.

She calmly yet sternly said “No.” I accepted this answer.

A few weeks later, my mom was driving me to school and I had a new way of asking her to sign me up. Her blue Buick drove down the snowy trail as I waited for the perfect moment. I turned to my mom, who had her eyes on the road, and I quietly peeped “Mom, if you really love me you’ll sign me up for improv classes.”

My mom didn’t look at me, we passed by the “Pic a Flic” where we used to rent movies for a dollar on Thursdays, with total silence. We stopped at a red light where my mom turned to me and calmly said “Okay”. I was signed up the same day which began my journey into the improv world.

What has the journey been like for you?

I think I’ve come a long way in improv. It’s not just me seeing how loud I can yell. I still get the same magic chill up my spine when I hit that line or make that connection with my scene partner. I’m in The Assembly now where I’m learning long form and it’s a different beast for sure!

What would you say is your biggest accomplishment as an improviser?

I’d say as an improvisor producing the show Zero Hour Improv. We’re celebrating the two year anniversary in July so I’m very excited. It’s been a long process finding out the best way to do the format of the show. I have redefined my relationship as the host. I remember having only three troupes on it. We fit in short form games in between the troupes. It did okay. Now I book 10 troupes on it. No games! It’s really become a place where the troupes always have an audience. There is no chance of failure. We had a guy spit into another guy’s mouth during the last show .The audience loved it. My hosting skills have also improved. I finally learned that I didn’t need costumes or elaborate openings. I just need to be myself and that’s enough. I truly feel like I’m my best self when I’m hosting that show.

That’s amazing! How did you come up with the idea for Zero Hour Improv?

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Two years ago, I was doing a Star Wars-themed show, which premiered on May 4. We got through two shows. The final show in July everything went wrong. There were actors that couldn’t make it because of fringe. The poster person dropped out on me. It was a disaster! I was thinking of dropping the show but Isabel Kanaan told me that I should just invite some improv troupes and play some games. I thought that was a way better idea than just cancelling.  I invited three troupes to play on the show. My mom made the poster. The only thing was to name the show. I wanted to name it after the fact that it was put on at the last moment. I thought it was “Zero Hour”. However ,it was later pointed out to me that what I was really thinking of was the “Eleventh Hour.” I later looked up what Zero Hour meant. It’s defined as “The time at which a usually significant or notable event is scheduled to take place.“ I thought it fit pretty well. Did I mention we’re celebrating two years on July 4? Thank you, Isabel!

Any favourite scenes?

Oh boy! This is one of my favourite scenes I’ve ever done. I’m playing Hitler (no relation, of course!). I’m upset because Germany is not seen as the most evil country in the world. My partner asked, “What was the most evil country in the world?” What could really be more evil than Nazi Germany? I pondered a moment. For whatever reason I picked…Canada.

My partner burst out laughing. “Canada?! What could Canada have done to be worse then us?!” he asked and to be honest I didn’t know the answer.

“You don’t know?” I replied, hoping to think of an answer.

“No, I don’t,” he replied.

I was racking my brain on what to say then I had it. “Have you ever heard of residential schools?” I said and the class lost it. I had worked my way out of a corner in a realistic way. It was thrilling to write myself into a corner and get out of it on the spot. Only improv could give me that.

How has improv made a difference in your life?

I think the biggest impact improv has had on my life is that it gave me a community of great friends in Toronto. The move to Toronto was a bit scary and lonesome. When I got into the Second City Conservatory, it brought a lot of great people into my life. I owe so much to that class. It’s where I met the members of my sketch troupe, Live Dudes (check out their YouTube channel!). Who knows where I’d be without those guys? I definitely wouldn’t have a cow costume in my closet.

Can you tell me about a time you’ve messed up on stage and just rolled with it?

I had a piece of my jaw taken out to correct my under-bite. Sometimes in scenes I won’t be able to pronounce because my jaw just can’t move fast enough. I’ve learned to embrace that, make it a part of my character and maintain it throughout a scene. It’s always great overcoming something like that.

Where can we see you on stage?

You can see me at Zero Hour Improv every first Wednesday of the month. Our next show is July 4 at Comedy Bar. It’s going to be a loaded show and my dad is coming out from Winnipeg. He’s a fan. You can get tickets here!

Awesome! Thank you, Tyler, and happy two-year anniversary to Zero Hour Improv!

There’s no place like improv…I mean, home

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For more than 30 years, Velvet Duke has been doing improv. He says one of the main benefits is the opportunity to connect with others. Photo credit: Brent Robichaud

When I first got into improv last year, one thing that struck with me was the inspiring and supportive community that I found myself exposed to. Over the past year, I met a range of talented improvisers who continue to support each other.

One of them was Velvet Duke, an improviser and singer based in Toronto. Velvet started performing 30 years ago and hasn’t looked back. We caught up about his journey navigating through the improv community and how he sought to even further empower the community with some awesome shows.

How did you get into improv?

My high school theatre arts teacher introduced improv as one component of his curriculum. After that, I had an opportunity to go to school for programming or acting. I loved programming but didn’t think I would like it as a job. I took a year of theater in college and found it didn’t satisfy the way improv had.

Improv is the more interesting art form because you can throw yourself into the moment and each show offers different moments.

What has the journey been like you?

It has been a lifelong journey with some of my greatest joys and friendships, and some of my deepest woes.

What would you say is your biggest accomplishment as an improviser?

Being thanked for some of my show formats — they were designed to uplift the community and that has seemed to have worked.

That’s amazing that you produced your own shows for the community. Can you tell me more about that?

It was new to me. I’m used to creating things but to have people thank me was really humbling.

Anyways, INTERSECTION was created to offer more stage time to diverse performers. It gives us a chance to see ourselves together as a group rather than one or two per show. It also brings in an audience that reflects that diversity.

Tough Love was part personal workshop and part show, where a featured performer could work through some of their bad habits. It was fun while it lasted and may come back.

The Sampler was a competition format that had performers working against strict timings to develop their skills for delivering and polishing material on demand.

What inspired you to produce these shows?

Initially I would look to see what I felt was a missing format in the communal landscape. Of the three though, INTERSECTION is the one I am proud of yet most similar to other shows. It isn’t the first show of its type — but there was still a hunger for it in the community.

Also, I love improv too much not to have things on the go.

What has the feedback been like?

Each sought to bring the community together. INTERSECTION often has the performers and audience talking after the show, continuing their personal stories.

Also, I’ve had professional performers unable to be part of the project thank me for creating it for the sake of the community.

That’s awesome. Anyways, back to you, my friend. Any weird moments or scenes that you can share?

I remember engaging with the audience at a Harry Potter themed show at Comic-Con. A little boy decided he was a very deadly potion but he also had the cutest giggle. At another Comic-Con show, a young woman decided she was a dragon. They were as invested as the performers!

How has improv made an impact on your life?

  • Finding the “yes” in seemingly difficult situations
  • Bringing humour to tense situations
  • Being able to empathize and connect with others
  • Being able to face down fears, to act through it
  • The joys of spending hours (okay, years) performing and talking about a shared passion
  • The friendships

If there’s one rule of improv that stuck with me, it’s that okay to make mistakes. Can you tell me about a time you’ve messed up on stage and how you rolled with it?

Once I coughed from the sidelines and that led me to be endowed as a sickly wife being used as blackmail to keep the husband working the smithy.

Also, I’ve developed aphasia and I already speak faster than I think, so I have made many unintended offers. Happy accidents!

Where can we see you on stage?

I perform across Toronto with my troupes The Dandies and OverDude. Also, I guest on shows at The Social Capital Theatre, Comedy Bar, Bad Dog Theatre, and regularly at the QAPD Collective, Toronto’s weekly LGBTQ open mic show, at Pegasus on Church.

 Is there anything you want to add or anything you want me to plug?

Learn everything you can by watching shows and taking classes but also hold on to your unique style, interests and, especially your weirdness.

Shows to plug:

INTERSECTION – the joys and struggles of Canadian life (next: June 6)
Diverse storytelling comedy show – 1st Wednesday of every month at The Social Capital

Holodeck Follies (next: June 9)
Spontaneous Star Trek and variety comedy show. 2nd Saturday of every month at Comedy Bar

Thanks for sharing, Velvet! Also, make sure you like his Facebook page and follow him on Twitter!

Laughing in the face of fear

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Cameron Algie started improvising at Second City Toronto 12 years ago. “I’m a completely different person now, thanks to improv,” he says. Photo credit: Adrianne Gagnon.

Someone once told me that if you’re scared to do something, that is the reason why you should do it. I forget who that person was (I have the memory of a chimpanzee), but their words stuck with me.

To kick things off, I spoke with Cameron Algie, an improviser in Toronto. Cameron teaches improv for anxiety at Second City Toronto and Play With Fire Improv. He also produces Laugh in the Face of Fear, a show based on the theme of anxiety. We caught up about his journey as an improviser and how it changed his life.

How did you get into improv?

I was seeing a therapist for my anxiety and any time he tried to get me to be vulnerable, I’d turn to joking and trying to lighten the mood. He laughed a couple of times, told me I was funny, and said I should take a Second City class. I took it as him listening to me talk about how I felt alone and scared and sick all the time and unable to leave my house, and his solution was to go be funny on a stage in front of hundreds of judgmental strangers. I thought it over, and stopped seeing that therapist. But he had planted the thought in my head. About six months after that, I hit emotional rock bottom, and decided there was really nothing left to lose, so I signed up for a class.  I hated the idea and improv scared the shit out of me. After a few classes, I started to love it.

What has the journey been like for you?

Literally life-changing. I mean, I used to be a copywriter in advertising. I would go to classes or shows after work each night. Then I started teaching classes after work. Eventually the scales started to tip. I remember leaving work one night to do a show and the shocked expression on people’s faces that I would dare leave when there was still work to get done. But I’d found a new priority. When I finally worked up the courage to get fired, I decided to make a go of improv as a career. I make less, but I’m way happier.

Side bar, I recently went back and did a corporate improv show for the agency that fired me.

And how has improv made an impact on your life?

I’m a completely different person now thanks to improv. For one, I used to be a huge asshole. My inner voice was so judgmental and harsh. If I messed up at all, even flubbed a word, my inner voice would say something like, “You stupid useless piece of shit, no wonder nobody loves you!” I got used to that voice. It was all I heard. So used to it, it started to become my voice. I spoke to others the way I would speak to myself. If an account person (advertising person between the creatives and the clients) messed up at all, I would say something charming like, “You useless piece of shit…”

But I really took to the acceptance part of improv. This is how this is. Instead of constantly trying to change it, just give over to it and go along for the ride. It softened me tremendously. My inner voice is very loving now, and my outer has changed too. I hope there are people who can’t imagine me being an asshole, as much as I accept that there are still people from my ad days who can’t imagine me ever even smiling. Also, I smile all the time now.

I can’t imagine you being an asshole. Has improv changed the way you feel about yourself?

I felt I had to be perfect all the time. To constantly be better than I was yesterday and always growing and improving. It was a lot of pressure. I hated it. I hated life. Improv showed me mistakes were okay. I struggled to make mistakes at first, but then really grew to understand that there really is no such thing in improv. If you mess up and call cars “carbs” then your team builds a world where people drive carbs, and other people are worried about their weight and can’t drive carbs. The play is really in the mistakes. That carried over into my life and I was able to beat myself up less when something went “wrong.”

That’s one rule of improv that stuck with me, It’s okay to make mistakes. Can you share a time you’ve messed up on stage and just rolled with it?

Oh man, probably thousands of times. None are popping into my head because they weren’t treated as mistakes, so they didn’t even register as one. I remember one time seeing someone stumble a bit getting onto the stage. Very embarrassing. For one second. Before the next player on the team also stumbled. Then the next teammate fell onto the ground. The rest of the team heightened till the audience was enjoying their “obviously pre-planned” stage entrance bit. Voila, no mistake!

I’m curious. Can you tell us about a particularly weird scene you’ve been in?

That’s the thing about improv, it’s mostly weird. But not weird. I’ve played a feather boa constrictor, driven a bathtub car, had laser legs, and a whole bunch of other crazy shit, but they all felt normal in the context of the scene.

Any tips for other folks who may want to try improv?
I feel like I should know how to answer this.
    • Bring a friend. I brought Sally and my buddy Tom to my first Second City class and it helped having them there.
    • Go see a show. The first improv show I saw (Catch 23 at Clinton’s) blew my mind. I actually said, “I could never do that.” But there was something that seemed so cool about it.
    • Try a drop-in. It can feel scary to commit to a full class, but improvising for a couple of hours makes it feel more doable.
    • Try improv by yourself or with a friend. There are resources out there that have lists of improv games.
    • Just practice playing. Board games, sports, any of the 365 ways to play on Instagram at @PlayWithFireImprov.
    • Know that you don’t have to be funny and you’re not expected to be good. It’s a class, meaning you’re there to learn. And you’re not there to get good at improv, you’re there to get okay with not being good at something.
    • The class itself isn’t scary, but the idea of it is, so most of the fear will come before the class. The hardest part is walking through that door the first time. So maybe sign up at the last minute. That way you’re not signing up two months before and then waiting and imagining all kinds of things for weeks before you go do it. Decide to do a drop-in that night.
    • Also go to the place where you’re thinking of doing a drop-in or class, and check out the space or see a show. Having that familiarity will make it easier the next time you go.
    • Breathe.

Where can we see you on stage?

Gonna plug my own show here: Laugh in the Laugh-in-Face-of-Fear-Feb-e1488170420246.jpgFace of Fear. There’s a free drop-in beforehand for anxious people who’d like to try improv but are scared to sign up a full improv class. Third Tuesday of every month, 8pm, at The Social Capital.

Other than that, I don’t have a ton of regular shows. Come see S&P whenever we perform. And Booze Clues and Blast from the Past, and any show that invites me to come play. Follow me on Twitter? Don’t, I don’t use Twitter.

Thanks so much for sharing, Cameron! You heard him, folks. Follow him on Twitter.

Laughter is definitely the best medicine

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We’ve all heard the old adage “Laughter is the best medicine.” For me, it holds true.

You would think getting into improv would be one of the last things I would want to do, especially as someone who suffers from generalized anxiety and depression. Talk about uncertainty.

For years, I was struggling. I was unhappy. My therapist has called it dysthymia, a mild but chronic depression.

As far as I’m concerned, I’ve faced elements of depression, anxiety, obsessive thoughts and hypersensitivity. There have been occasions when I would be afraid to leave the house over a debilitating fear that something bad may happen. There have been occasions when I’ve cried myself to sleep. There have been occasions when I felt as though I didn’t want to live. There have been occasions where I’ve felt unloved and I put a smile on my face even though I was not smiling on the inside. I was isolating myself and pushing people away. I was unhappy. I was anxious. No one around me even knew — at least, I think they didn’t know.

I knew I wanted to change. I sought help. I opened up to my friends and family about how I was feeling — I still remember the look on my mom’s face when I told her how unhappy I was.

I also wanted to branch out and find new interests. Last year, I decided to take the improv for anxiety class at Second City Toronto.

At first, I was terrified at the thought of doing improv. But I decided to jump in. One of the first icebreaker games we played was penguin tag, which is exactly as it sounds; it’s tag but you waddle like a penguin as you play. It was fun.

I immediately loved this new world I got into. I loved jumping into scenes. I loved making a fool of myself (something I do quite a bit of anyways). I loved the community of interesting and supportive people.

For the next eight months after that, I found myself taking more classes and getting more involved in the improv community. Now, I even joined an improv troupe (suitably named Coffee Breath) and started performing.

Over the past year, I realized just how much improv has improved my wellbeing. Naturally, the more I got into it, the better I started to feel about myself. I was feeling confident. I was having fun. Here are a few takeaways that I’ve picked up through improv:

You learn how to stay mentally present.

A constant struggle for people with anxiety is staying in the moment. I mean, it’s hard to keep your focus when you’re constantly worrying about something. One of the first games we played in class, called Red Ball, incorporated the need to stay focused. Actually, it’s a lot like mindfulness.

You learn how to cope with – even embrace – uncertainty.

Improv is about dealing with the unexpected. After all, everything is made up on the spot. When you struggle with anxiety, this might be your worst nightmare. But trust me: it teaches you to tolerate and even welcome uncertainty. Uncertainty keeps things interesting and improv teaches you to have fun with it.

Your presence alone is enough.

In improv, it doesn’t really matter what we say or do, so long as we’re there to keep things moving – even if it moves in another direction. While we may doubt ourselves or question our worth in our daily lives, sometimes our presence alone is enough.

It’s actually okay to make mistakes.

Mistakes aren’t just tolerated in improv. They’re celebrated.  Improv is mostly about being weird and silly anyways. And every mistake is an opportunity.  It’s how we learn and grow.

You learn self-awareness.

Improv teaches us to be in touch with our emotions. In my first class, we started off by simply walking around the room and paying attention to our breathing. Then our instructor asked us to make eye contact with others as we’re walking. Then, she asked us to wink at them. Finally, she asked us to stop and scream (and quite loudly) to each other. With each layer added, we paid attention to how our breathing changed and how we felt. She asked us how to embrace our anxieties and our vulnerabilities.

Don’t get me wrong, I still struggle but I’m okay with that. Thanks to improv, I’m okay with the uncertainty. And hey, there’s always penguin tag.