Improvisational Theatre Training Boosts the Confidence of Anxious Teens

by John Ellis

I’m a big proponent of improvisation theatre training for a variety of disciplines and fields. Sales jobs, management, teachers, clergy, and medical professionals make up a short list of vocations that would be served by increased improv skills among those fields’ workers. In fact, I firmly believe that any job that requires interpersonal communication would greatly benefit from improvisational theatre training. More importantly, I have seen first hand the benefits that improvisational theatre training gives to students living in poverty. Well, new research conducted at the University of Michigan provides concrete evidence of improvisational theatre training’s value for teens who suffer stress and anxiety because of social interactions.

In an article published on the University of Michigan’s website, it’s reported that:

Improvisational theater training can reduce fearfulness and anxiety among teens struggling with social interactions, a new University of Michigan study suggests.

School-based improv theater—performing without a script or preparation—may be effective for social phobias and anxiety disorders because it offers a low stigma, low cost and more accessible context for help in reducing these symptoms, say U-M researchers.

For many, it may seem counter-intuitive that improv classes would help relieve stress and lower anxiety. Two and a half decades ago, the thought of any kind of performing terrified me. During my senior year of high school, I was forced to sing as part of an ensemble for a school assembly. Standing so far down stage that we teetered on the apron’s lip, the only way I made it through without plunging headfirst into the front row was by staring at my basketball coach the entire time. And I wasn’t being asked to do any improv.

Two decades ago, beginning my theatre career, I had little exposure to improv. During the first rehearsal for The Art of Dining, the director called the cast together downstage and said, “Let’s warm up with some improv.”

While my castmates cheered, I attempted to hide my terror. The thought of coming up with my lines off the cuff seemed pointless to me, not to mention frightening. Not long after that, I took my first improv class. It was everything I could do to force myself to stay and not slip out, unnoticed, before the class began. So, even as someone who has performed improv professionally and taught improv, I empathize with those who may question how improv could help lower stress and anxiety. But, as someone who is a big proponent of improvisational theatre education for a variety of disciplines and reasons, this study out of the University of Michigan caught my attention.

According to Peter Felsman, lead author of the study, “this is the first study to examine whether improvisational training can be linked to reduced social anxiety in a school setting.”

The UofM article goes on to explain:

For the study, nearly 270 Detroit high school and middle school students participated in a 10-week school improvisation theatre program offered by The Detroit Creativity Project. The students completed questionnaires before and after the program, allowing them to assess statements such as, “I am comfortable performing for others” and “I am willing to make mistakes.”

“These findings show that reductions in social anxiety were related to increased confidence in social skills, ability to figure out how to achieve goals and take action to do so (hope), creative ability and greater willingness to make mistakes,” said co-author Colleen Seifert, professor of psychology.

The study’s findings match up almost perfectly with my admittedly non-scientific experience and confirms why I believe non-actors would benefit from improvisational theatre training. One brief example: learning to trust yourself, specifically learning to trust your innate sense of free association (if I say “dog” you’ll immediately think of something that’s connected – bone, Snoopy, fire hydrant, et al.) is a great way to learn that you have the ability to say something of substance no matter what. That, in turn, will increase confidence in a whole host of situations involving social interactions.

For generations, theatre artists have been touting the value of theatre education. This study is one more example of how theatre education can be used to great benefit for those who will never set foot on the stage as a professional actor. Helping teenagers gain more confidence will go a long way to aiding their success in school and the work force. Taking it a step further, improvisational theatre training for students living in poverty is an excellent way for communities to offer a helping hand to kids who are caught in the devastating cycle of poverty through no fault of their own.

The Detroit Creativity Project (website linked to above) is a non-profit operating according to the 100% model that is dedicated to helping Detroit area-kids who are living in poverty develop tools that will help lift them out of the cycle of poverty. TDCP explains, “For $170 in tuition, our students develop the ability to collaborate, listen to other’s views, build literacy skills, and learn to take risks in a safe, supportive setting. Their teachers tell us these young improvisers attend school more regularly, engage in class, and achieve stronger academic growth.”

Having worked in the Kennedy Center’s Art’s Integration for Title 1 Schools’ pilot program and having helped shape that program’s theatre immersion curriculum, I have seen first hand the benefits improv training gives to students mired in the cycle of poverty. I hope that this study out of the University of Michigan will encourage an increasing number of communities to embrace and support organizations like The Detroit Creativity Project. Children living in poverty is in an issue that touches us all and a problem that far more of us should be concerned about solving. Among the many Bible verses admonishing God’s people to care for the poor and oppressed, Proverbs 14:31 gives this warning, “Whoever oppresses a poor man insults his Maker, but he who is generous to the needy honors him.”

It’s encouraging to see theatre artists continuing to seek ways to use their art to be generous to the needy.

You can read the study’s abstract by clicking here.

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