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Why Improv for Autism?

I remember when I took my first improv class it quickly dawned on me that my improv teacher was teaching me a lot of the same concepts and skills that I was using to attempt to enlighten my clients with in therapy. The parallels between improv and therapy are incredible and the therapeutic benefits that are naturally embedded within the learning and performance process of improv are astounding.

Fast forward to a few years later and I am now teaching ground-breaking improv classes to people with various unique needs with Stomping Ground Comedy’s Improv for Life program. Our Improv 101 class at the NonPareil Institute (a school for adults with autism) ended in December 2017 and I am eager to find more students to work with after seeing the growth of our students. I witnessed our students gain an unbelievable amount of social skills and confidence in a short 7-week course.

For anyone reading who is not familiar with improvisational comedy, it is a spontaneous type of live theater where plots, characters, and dialogue are all created in the moment usually prompted by a one word suggestion. Improv is completely unscripted. Improvisers are trained to learn the ins and outs of improv comedy in a group by learning a set of guidelines. These improv guidelines are used to help performers create dialogue and to help the scene flow. When things are flowing, improv is highly enjoyable to watch.

So how does improv help people with autism? I think it’s important to understand the needs of the population first to truly understand the benefits.

Autism presents itself in individuals who are neurologically and genetically distinct from the average person. No two people with autism will demonstrate the exact same behavior pattern. Each is unique. But for the purposes of gaining perspective, I would like you to step into the world of a person with some common autism symptoms. Imagine for a moment that you do not have the intuitive and subconscious ability to read others- something that many of us take for granted. Picking up on non-verbal cues such as facial expressions, body language, and eye contact are not skills you come by naturally. In the same way that you are challenged to understand and interpret others, you are also challenged to express and communicate your needs, desires, and interests. It might be difficult to be emotionally and socially responsive, making it seem like you are aloof or distant. You may also find it hard to initiate and sustain conversations. You could even have atypical communication skills like repeating phrases, delayed language development, or not being able to speak at all. All of this is likely to cause your social interactions to be a challenge and you may have difficulty forming and maintaining relationships. Just think about how often you have social interactions and the role they play in your life. What if you couldn’t express yourself or read others? Research is showing us that people with autism who are higher functioning are able to learn social skills, helping them to make connections and have a better quality of life. What a wonderful finding, right?!

So, how do you teach social skills to someone? Well, improv is a great way, which would explain why psychology programs at universities are currently researching and implementing improv for people with autism. It is through the learning of improv guidelines where self-growth, empowerment, and shifts in behavior and thinking naturally happen. Stomping Ground Comedy’s Improv for Autism class was carefully designed to tune social skills and connection for people with autism.

When we began our first Improv 101 class at NonPareil Institute in October, we set the stage that class was a “no-judgement zone”. Creating an environment that is accepting, safe, and fun while in a group setting is gold. It’s gold for anyone, but especially for someone with autism. Our students loved this, as they were able to freely be themselves and express themselves in whatever ways came to them in the moment. A group setting IS a social setting, which means social interactions are happening at every moment during class. Group cohesiveness is naturally occurring and connections are forming without being forced.

We had our students create the ground rules for the next seven weeks. Each student was given the opportunity to set a boundary on a topic, issue, or behavior that they did not feel comfortable with in a scene or in class. Through this, students not only learned how to communicate setting social boundaries (something that can be extremely challenging for all of us); they also learned how to respect the boundaries of their peers. (Yes, I know what you’re thinking- EVERYONE should take an improv class! We think so too). Class boundaries were discussed and brought up throughout the course, and students could always add a boundary in any class as issues arose. This is a valuable social skill to practice- communicating and respecting boundaries in a healthy way throughout the course of any relationship is essential.

During each class we started off with hand-picked improv games that would benefit our students the most. Each game encourages communication, listening, responding, and connecting, which are all concepts tied to the improv guidelines used in performance. Our students were practicing social skills in a social setting. Giving them this experience in a safe environment makes it more likely that they may try it again in the real world. A typical symptom of someone with autism is that it can be a challenge to make and maintain eye contact. We made a point to not ask our students to make eye contact; however, eye contact started to happen naturally throughout the class as a result of games and scene work. A simple game of standing in a circle and passing a sound and gesture to one another encouraged connection, playfulness, eye contact, and empathy. After several classes, I noticed that the improv games and scene work were fostering other wonderful social skills such as; patience, thinking before speaking, picking up on social cues, and being more willing to “roll with the punches.”

The number one guideline when doing improv comedy is to say “Yes, and” in a scene or game; With this guideline, you ACCEPT that your scene partner has created and you ADD to that made-up reality. Our students were so good at this and they had so much fun doing it. They were expressing themselves in whatever way they wanted, with no correction and no judgement. This was such a confidence builder. When people are agreeing with you AND adding information to a world you just created, it feels pretty darn good. Our “yes, and” scene work not only boosted confidence but it also cultivated a sense of capability in initiating conversations and having conversations. Students were practicing how to have conversations by listening and responding, giving and taking, and committing to the scene they were in.

By our last class, we could all feel that friendships had flourished. When you put a group of people in the same room that all have a commonality, you will inevitably find that a bond is created. Most of our students told us on the first day of class that initiating conversations with others and even entering into a group setting was very hard for them. Many said they took the class because they didn’t have many or any friends at nonPareil and it was difficult for them to meet people. The difference was night and day when our last class arrived. They were all laughing and snickering to one another about inside jokes like a group of fraternity brothers.

Our students put on a show for their friends and family last week. I have to admit, I was a little jealous of how many laughs they got. They put on a hilarious show. Mostly, I was proud and amazed. Each and every student did an incredible job performing the skills they had learned over the course of seven weeks. These skills were essentially social skills that they practiced and practiced and eventually performed. The biggest takeaway was that I saw these students form relationships and use these skills in real life. The staff saw the students’ growth and the students saw it in themselves.

There is a whole other dimension of improv that we have traveled to now, and we are here to stay and explore so we can bring improv for unique needs to our great city of Dallas. I look forward to connecting with the community and finding where programs like this are needed most.

To read more about the autism class offered for adults and teens at Stomping Ground and further reading about why improv is beneficial to many unique populations, visit our Improv for Life page.

Andrea K. Baum, M.Ed., LPC
Improv for Life Program Director
Stomping Ground Comedy Theater
Certified Positive Discipline Parent Educator

 

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Dallas Observer visits our Improv for Anxiety Workshop

Thank you to Danny Gallagher and Dallas Observer for spending the afternoon with us and helping spread the word about Improv for Anxiety!

Inside a Dallas Class that Teaches Improv to Help with Anxiety

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On Personal Growth As A Performer or Why You Should Continue Your Journey of Comedic Discovery

First, a bit of backstory: By the time I finally moved to Chicago in 2007 I had already been performing improv professionally for 5 years (and in some capacity for 7 years).  During those years most of the energy I spent towards improv was focused entirely on performance. Weekly live shows in front of paid audiences were great experience, but they only afforded a very cursory glance  what had gone right or wrong on a given night. As a group we would discuss the night’s show, but were only given a very limited number of opportunities for workshops, coaching, and improv education.

When I arrived in the Windy City with the goal of becoming a better performer, I realized that my experience left me with a comedic worldview that was both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, I had an edge over other improvisers who were just starting out their love affair with the art form. I had already made it past the “honeymoon phase” of being obsessed with everything improv, and saw myself as a capable and experienced performer. This lack of awareness (or maybe exaggerated sense of self) led me to see my first few classes in Chicago as a means to an end, rather than as an end unto themselves.

In other words, I saw my classes at iO and Annoyance as an opportunity to “prove” to my teachers that I was capable and already “knew what I was doing”. As if I needed merely to show those in decision-making roles that I was someone who already had it down. This all changed one week in my level 2 improv class at Annoyance with a truly remarkable (and honest) teacher who was able to break me of this mindset for good.

At this point I can’t remember what was happening in the scene or what I said, but I do remember exactly what happened and how I felt at the time. I was in a two person scene with another person in class and a wonderful relationship and setting had been established. Being the clever improviser I thought I was at the time, I thought of a great joke that called back something from earlier in the scene; it broke the reality of our scene and got a big laugh from the class. I felt a sense of pride knowing I had been “funny”. but the teacher stopped the scene and called me out. He said (paraphrased as best as I can remember), “Cam, I wish you would stop trying to prove to me that you can be funny, we all know you can be funny, why don’t you try doing a good scene”

Boom. My heart sank. I was devastated. I had never felt less like I “got it” since my first week of improv rehearsals years earlier.

This was exactly the push I had needed to get over one of the most profound hurdles I had faced as an improviser. A harsh, pointed, personalized note was exactly the diamond edge I needed to cut through my arrogant exterior and get to the heart of what I should be doing as a performer, in service to the audience and my fellow players.

Now, 11 years after the fact, I find myself embarking on a new journey where myself and fantastic group of experienced performers and teachers will try to fill the unfillable shoes of the great teachers that shaped our careers and performances over the years.

Of course our goal as teachers is to introduce people to the art and hobby of improv, and with that the hope that they fall immediately and hopelessly in love with it the same way that we did years ago. But we also have a larger (and much more difficult) goal to mold our students into truly great performers.

At Stomping Ground, transforming players into performers isn’t just a hope, it’s the entire goal of our comedic training program. Luckily, we have a strategy for this process that involves a lot more than showing our students what improv is and going through the motions of doing the improv exercises that one may learn in an introductory improv class.

Improv curriculum isn’t a secret or a magic formula. Anyone can buy the UCB Manual or Truth in Comedy or one of Mick Napier’s books and read the exercises, or even get together with a group of friends and try them out. So why pay for improv classes?

The difference is the instructor, and the experience and personal time and attention that teacher is willing to give to their students. That’s why at Stomping Ground, we haven’t just made it our hope to mentor and guide our students in their personal growth, but have made it the entire foundation of our training center. At each level starting with level 1, our students can expect to be given personal notes and feedback at each step along the way (and during class) that will pinpoint what they need at that time, so we can mold our students into the greatest possible performers.

It’s always been the case that level 1 classes are a mixture of seasoned improvisers and those who are just dipping their toes into the comedy water, which is precisely why our teachers will tailor notes and curriculum to the individual level of the performer. The faster our students clear hurdles towards becoming better, the faster they’re ready to get on stage an inspire audiences to do the same.

One of the worst feelings you can have as a student is not being sure where you stand, not being certain of what you need to work on personally, and feeling like classes aren’t giving you the tools you need to continually improve. Hopefully open communication, lots of individual notes and feedback, and the transparency of a true meritocracy that serves the audience will leave our students knowing exactly what they need to get on stage, get over a hurdle, or improve at whatever aspect of their performance they personally feel needs the most attention.


If you would, please take a look at this dope drawing I made in photoshop that hopefully encapsulates our training philosophy not just as a means to get class revenue, but as a goal of creating a community where learning and improvement is the goal, and making audiences laugh is the reward.

Please, come learn with us and take your talent to new heights. We’re ready to teach you.

Cameron Goldapp

Conservatory Director

Exceptional performances inspire audiences to pursue comedy. Great training and personal mentorship creates capable and professional performers. Treating talent fairly, honestly, and openly creates a space for great and inspiring performances
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Why Improv for Mental & Emotional Health?

In an era plagued by increasing screen time and less face time, meeting and connecting with people is more important than ever. Human beings crave a community and genuine human connections, but fear and anxiety can keep us from stepping out of our comfort zone and instead keep us tied to the comfort of home or the screen. This is where improvisational comedy comes in.

The power of laughter to transform our brain chemistry has been proven again and again in years of scientific studies. Researchers and clinical psychologists are now discovering the therapeutic benefits in the learning process of improvisational comedy. Improv affects a range of human emotions and life skills and promotes emotional and mental health. Mindfulness, communication skills, social skills, emotional regulation, self-awareness, and interpersonal connections are just a few of the many gains embedded in the process of learning improv.

As the benefits of improv on the brain continue to emerge, mental health professionals and improv theaters all over the world have created therapeutic programs. And the results are clear- improv is good for your emotional health, mental health, personal relationships, and your life!

Here is just some of the research and press dedicated to improvisational comedy:

Tedx: How Improv Comedy Improves Mental Health

US News and World Report: The Health Benefits of Practicing Improv

Washington Post: The Not-So-Funny Reason Therapists are Taking Comedy Classes

CBC News: Laughter Truly the Best Medicine for Mental Health Improv Group

Rutgers: Using Improv to Boost Confidence, Improve Mental Health

Medscape: Improv for Anxiety: A Stand-up Therapeutic Tool?

Psychology Today: Can Improv Comedy Treat Social Anxiety?

Anxiety.org: 7 Pillars of Improv to Achieve Flow and Decrease Anxiety

The Atlantic: Using Comedy Improv as Therapy for Anxiety

Illinois Institute of Technology: Thera-prov: a Pilot Study of Improv Used to Treat Anxiety and Depression

NPR: Using Improv To Help Kids with Autism Show and Read Emotion

Chicago Tribune: For Teens on the Autism Spectrum, Improv Classes Can Aid Communication

Vanderbilt University: Improvement in Social Competence Using a Randomized Trial of a Theatre Intervention for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Autism Support Network: Autism, Life, and Learning Improv

Huffington Post: Teens with Autism Stretch, Grow, and Laugh in Improv Classes at Second City

Indiana Public Media: Whose Line is it Really? How Improv Benefits Children with Autism

Southern California Public Radio: How Improv Helps Kids with Autism: A Look at ‘Zip Zap Zop’ Enrichment

Care.com: Improv Can Help Autistic Children Express Themselves

Trent University: Life is Improv: Mental Health, Seniors, and the Joy of Living in the Moment

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Classes Sneak Peak!

 

Originally Published January 17, 2018

Improv Level 1: “The Basics”

(No Prerequisite)

Instructor- Chad Cline

Students will be introduced to the world of improv comedy and will learn basic agreement, guidelines, and scenework

  • Theater Basics
  • The Tools of Improv
  • Creating Reality
  • Introduction to Scenework

Improvised Song For Beginner: “Basics of Improvised Song”

Prequisite: Improv Levels 1 & 2 at any training center or equivalent experience

Instructor- Jim Kuenzer & Jeff Poteat

Students will learn the basics of improvised song including guidelines, styles, and application including.

  • Rhyme schemes
  • Song styles/genres
  • Duets and group songs
  • Short form games

 

Sketch Comedy Level 1: “The Process & Science of Comedy”

(No Prerequisite)

Instructor- Lindsay Goldapp

Students will be introduced to the process of creating an original sketch review and various sketch structures. They will begin the writing process for the show they will produce and perform when they enroll in Sketch Comedy Level 2.

  • Learning the Types of Sketches
  • Comedic Songwriting & Song Parody
  • The Brainstorming & Writing Process

 

Stand Up Comedy Level 1: “Getting on Stage”

(No Prerequisite)

Instructor- Aaron Aryanpur

Students will learn basic public speaking techniques and how to develop their own original comedic material, crafting a short set that they will then perform in a showcase at the Stomping Ground stage.

  • Brief History of Stand Up Comedy
  • Writing and Editing “Personal” Material – getting to the point and being memorable
  • Crafting showcase/open mic/audition/hosting sets – how to actually PERFORM your material, get noticed, and hopefully get some work

 

Level 5 Improv Conservatory

More info here

Class Registration for classes will be posted February 1 and classes start March 4. Scholarships and internships will be available and will be posted the same day.

Audition sign-ups for the Level 5 Conservatory are currently live so grab your spot now!