by Florence Ditlow
“Miss Ditlow, here is where you learn to improvise!” Said Mrs. Goodreau, holding out an empty pillow case. You see, I needed a pillow and there was a linen shortage.
As a nursing student in a hospital run by Public Health Services, we stuffed pillows and invented other outlandish tools to care for patients. Later I recalled this when I used Improv Comedy to help patients release or surrender their hoarded “mental stuff.”
My greatest inspiration for improv is Bobby McFerrin, whose magical presence is responsible for healing so many souls. He loves to move an audience of strangers to sing or dance together. The first time I saw him he charmed us by coming into the isle and having us play along.
He moved us to, “Start going, just open your mouth and keep going.” It was ok, we wouldn’t be judged- he’d intended to free us from the mundane. My interest in humor as therapy led me to take the improv comedy training at Gotham City Improv, in Manhattan. The core advantage of improv is to move, express emotion and work /play with your group to create a scene. Emotion somehow tickles the brain to turn feeling into comedy.
I had health issues then and greatly benefitted from the training. My worsening neuromuscular condition required a big shift to living on disability. I had stopped working as an RN in the hospital but continued my concurrent volunteer work at a VA clinic; I ran a veteran’s group for rehabilitation from substance abuse. I really needed to use my accumulated experience as a new occupation.
If I’d drawn attendees into a web of fun with prop humor, joke telling (of all kinds) or videos, employing improv usually got more laughs. My role was simply to demonstrate and egg them on! We did also go on “humor searches.” My group of five or six went down the block for a better humor vision, returning to talk about our observations of humor in people or places. The observers agreed they’d somehow “escaped” psychologically.
The value of using improv in healthcare seems to satisfy on the emotional level, the physical level as well as to offer a positive perspective in solving weighty problems. Though a worthy tool, improv feels like a game, showing the audience and me: life IS a game.