Improv therapy

By Emily Fasold

To many, the pressure of jumping on stage and entertaining an audience with improvisation can induce anxiety. But Second City’s new “Improv for Anxiety Boot Camp” is aiming to do the opposite by using humor to treat the condition.

The program, a collaboration between licensed psychotherapist Mark Pfeffer and the staff of the world-famous Second City comedy club and school, 1616 N. Wells St., combines improv acting, a script-free form of theater, with traditional therapy to treat patients with various anxiety disorders.

According to Pfeffer, this off-beat approach will be particularly beneficial for anxiety patients because performing improv exposes them to their fear of the unknown in a way that is creative and fun.

“Improv gives patients practice for life’s uncertainties in an environment that’s fun,” Pfeffer said. “It’s hard to be terrified when you’re laughing.”

The boot camp will kick off April 30 with eight 90-minute therapy sessions with Pfeffer to prepare patients for their improv debuts.

Second City’s comedy instructors will then lead patients through eight two-and-a-half hour-long sessions of improv acting. During the program, patients will meet as a group each Saturday to practice social and confidence skills.

Although the official boot camp is just getting started, Pfeffer and Kerry Sheeham, president of Second City’s Training Centers and Education Programs International, performed a trial program in August with 18 anxiety patients.

After they observed a significant improvement in participants’ confidence and social skills, they decided to continue the program.

“I personally saw my clients acting in ways after the improv that would have taken them much longer to do with the traditional method,” Pfeffer said. “I could see that they looked more confident and were improving in both their interpersonal lives and public speaking skills.”

The idea was born when Pfeffer and Sheehan met at Second City in 2010on the set of the Discovery Channel documentary “My Strange Phobia,” a documentary about social and public speaking phobias that never aired.

Sheehan said she was excited to meet Pfeffer because for years she had noticed improv’s psychological benefits for her students and longed for this observation to be clinically studied.

“I sort of knew personally and through feedback from our students that people took much more away from improv than just professional acting skills,” Sheehan said.

Prior to starting the boot camp, Pfeffer earned a one-year degree in improv acting from Second City in October 2011. He said that the confidence and sense of humor he learned during that year further convinced him that the art form could treat anxiety.

“I covet my diploma from Second City equally to my undergraduate and graduate degrees,” he said. “In fact, I probably learned more during my time there than I did in my college classes.”

Scott Elam, Second City’s youth program assistant, said that aside from the therapy sessions with Pfeffer, the boot camp is nearly identical to Second City’s regular curriculum.

“This class is not much different than what we usually do,” he said. “This is just relabeling it and giving it a little more […] focus on the therapeutic aspect rather than the theater aspect.”

Although still in its infancy, “Improv for Anxiety Boot Camp” has received positive feedback from the psychology community.

Amy Przeworski, an assistant professor of psychology at Case Western University who specializes in anxiety disorders, said she thinks the program is an innovative and creative twist on traditional treatment.

She explained that, like the boot camp, traditional group therapy exposes patients to social situations by asking them to act out job interviews and party conversations with one another in the hopes that the practice will alleviate their nerves. She said improv acting uses the same tried and true method of exposure while allowing patients to have fun.

“This is such a cool program and a great idea,” Przeworski said. “It uses exposure in a way that’s fun and can build on the individual’s creativity.”

According to Pfeffer, he and his colleagues at Second City are set to perform a three-hour demonstration of the program at the International Association of OCD Foundation in San Diego this July.

He said he is excited that the program is being taken seriously and hopes that improv and other performing arts like singing and dancing will be studied more in the future.

“The benefits of improv combined with therapy are beginning to become very evident,” Pfeffer said. “I hope that unique programs like this will be used by [future] therapists across the country.”