Lights, Camera, Improv!

How improvisation can be used to transform communities and lives

Jane Wong jumps up from her chair when she sees her opportunity to join in. Once in place, she starts moving her arms and making loud, mechanical noises in rhythm with the others.

She’s just become a part of the human machine, an exercise at tonight’s drop-in class for the Second City Toronto.

Wong, 38, attends these drop-in sessions on a regular basis. She says that improvisation has taught her many things, like how to be more positive and really let herself go.

“(Improvisation) makes you more present and able to deal with problems more clearly and with less judgment,” Wong said. “If you get in trouble, (improvisation teaches you to) focus on the world and your problems disappear.”

Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines the word improvise literally as to “speak or perform without preparation; to make or create (something) by using whatever is available.” Cary West, a teacher for the drop-in class, says this way of performing is a great opportunity for people to let go of control and stop over-thinking.

“(Improvisation) is therapy,” West said, “a chance to get completely out of your mind and into the moment. (You learn) to be adaptable to the unscheduled and the unplanned.”

Erin Conway is the general manager of the Second City’s Toronto location. She agrees that practising improvisation can have a positive effect on its participants.

“It’s not just about creating a scene (and) laughing together,” Conway said.It’s building communication, learning how to give and take focus, learning how to work as a team (and) building confidence.”

These are just a few of the things that Lori Pearlstein, the founder of Lori Pearlstein’s Playworks, teaches. She offers classes in acting, improvisation and auditions to both children and adults.

An actor since the age of nine, Pearlstein says she realized that the rejection auditioning actors were experiencing on a regular basis could have an extremely negative impact on their self-esteem. So, she decided to try to counteract that.

“I saw this opportunity to use improv and acting to help people,” Pearlstein said. “I found a way to use the same (acting) techniques to have the opposite effect, which is to help people come out of their shell.”

One of the classes Pearlstein offers is the Girls’ Club, an eight-week course using improvisation to help young girls become more comfortable expressing themselves. By the end of the course, Pearlstein says that some girls have been able to open up about everything from eating disorders to boys pressuring them for sex.

“Opening up the dialogue helps them and…finding a healthy, playful environment to deal with these issues,” Pearlstein said. “That’s really my goal; is in a very playful, fun way, getting these girls to just be more comfortable with who they are, instead of wanting to be something else.”

Naomi Tessler is the founder of Branch Out Theatre. She, too, felt shy as a young girl before she started acting. She says that the theatre helped her find a place where she could really express herself.

“Theatre for me was always a very safe place, an empowering place where I could really grow and shine and be my best self,” Tessler said.

Branch Out Theatre is a Toronto-based company striving to use theatre and popular education as tools to make positive social changes.

“Theatre seems like the gate to express emotions, whether we’re expressing it through a character or we’re expressing it ourselves,” Tessler said. “I think social change starts when communities are united and people are dialoguing and opening up; that’s a beginning step right there.”

Tessler is particularly inspired by the work of Brazilian theatre director Augusto Boal, founder of the Theatre of the Oppressed (TO). TO employs a participatory technique, encouraging audience members to engage in its plays.

Scenes in TO frequently explore points of conflict or tension relevant to its audience, Tessler says. Spectators can then join, discuss or request that the actors on stage explore different solutions to the problems being presented.

“When I heard of (Boal’s) work, it sent fireworks off in my whole being,” Tessler said. “It was literally the intersection of using theatre as a tool for social change and I got very interested in that work and wanted to pursue it.”

“(TO) supports people in bringing out issues or challenges,” she continued, “and also building confidence, self-esteem and community, and for me that’s just what I love.”

Conway agrees, and adds that improvisation also teaches confidence, communication skills and how to work as part of a team.

“Improv is such a life skill,” Conway said. “It transforms lives.”

– Kristin Eliason


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