Some people are apprehensive about participating in improv comedy because of its unscripted format that requires quick thinking to play off unpredictable ideas presented by others on stage or in the audience. But Northern Michigan University assistant professor Peter Felsman is the lead author of a published study providing the first evidence that improv training can significantly reduce a common trait of social anxiety and depression: discomfort with uncertainty.
The study also supports the contention that improv training provides a low-cost, low-stigma alternative intervention tied to improved mental health and enhanced social skills in a variety of settings.
Felsman and colleagues at the University of Michigan, where he earned his doctorate in social work and psychology, focused their research on 350 students in grades 8-12 from low-income neighborhoods in the Detroit Public School System. Within regular classes, 10 weekly improvisational theater sessions are offered free of charge by the Detroit Creativity Project. Researchers partnered with the organization to survey the students before and after the training to measure their intolerance of uncertainty and feelings of social anxiety. Both decreased substantially at the end of the program.
“Like all interventions, improv doesn't immediately work for everyone, and some people benefit more than others, but exposure is one mechanism that works across a range of emotional disorders,” said Felsman, who teaches in NMU's Social Work Department. “Uncertainty can't be totally eliminated from our lives, but dealing with it more effectively by embracing the unknown, confronting fears and creating new associations with feared situations can have a positive impact. Repeated exposure to the challenge of facing an audience of potential scrutinizers can help reduce the anxiety associated within and potentially beyond that context.”
Felsman said improv requires mindfulness and collaboration. For example, an individual needs to “be in the moment” to co-create a story with a scene partner who presents unpredictable ideas to build upon. The focus is on playing off of the other person rather than worrying about what other people think or a need to be funny. Improv also requires imagination and playfulness.
Becoming more comfortable with uncertainty and building confidence in a fun, supportive environment might also improve psychological flexibility in other situations, said study co-author Colleen Seifert, U-M psychology professor. This potentially makes it an accessible intervention option for those who can't afford expensive therapies.
The article published in The Arts in Psychotherapy journal earlier this year is the latest in a series of papers resulting from Felsman's dissertation exploring the potential benefits of improv training. A previous paper summarized a study that compared undergraduate students who did 20 minutes of improv with a control group that engaged in 20 minutes of social interaction.
Felsman said a shortcoming in the existing literature was the lack of an experimental control, which is true of most new-to-science interventions. Rather than rely solely on a pre- and post-improv analysis, the control allowed researchers to determine whether beneficial impacts could be attributed specifically to improv—which they were—rather than simply people interacting with others and having a good time.
It was an improvisational forms class Felsman took as a freshman pursuing a double major in music and psychology at U-M that sparked his interest in the topic.
“I remember a worksheet the professor gave us that reviewed the skills required for improv: non-judgment, non-attachment, willingness to act with conviction, full psycho-spiritual presence, attention and flexibility. Those were the same as what my psychology courses outlined as the protective qualities people should develop. One method used by psychologists to teach those skills was mindfulness practice. My work combines mindfulness with my connection to improvisation and the arts as practices that promote psycho-social function. Improv training helps develop people's tolerance of uncertainty, which offers protection from social anxiety.”
According to the recent Arts in Psychotherapy publication with Felsman as lead author, there is a rich history of improvisational theater being used to promote psychological benefits as part of other interventions. Psychodrama, which surfaced in the 1920s, uses techniques such as role play and role reversal to dramatize personal experiences. Growing out of that four decades later was drama therapy, which involves “enactments with more distance,” including improv theater games and non-improvisational exercises such as mask-making. Most available research on drama therapy focuses on children and adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities.
After completing his doctorate at U-M, Felsman worked as a postdoctoral associate at Stony Brook University in clinical psychology and science communication. He is collaborating with colleagues he met there to analyze before and after video data from scientists who used improv, other training and no training to determine the behavioral effects of improv. Felsman and those colleagues are also exploring the indirect benefits of Freestyle Love Supreme Academy (FLSA), established in 2018 to foster diverse creative voices using improvisation and freestyle rap.
The organization sprung from Freestyle Love Supreme, an improvised musical comedy show co-founded and produced by Lin Manuel Miranda before he achieved Hamilton fame. Felsman said cast members involved with the show started to teach improv and freestyle to others, which spawned FLSA. The academy is “committed to creating and maintaining an environment in which all individuals are treated with dignity and respect.”
On the verge of his third year at NMU, Felsman said he would like to develop more improv opportunities on and off campus to provide a fun diversion that demonstrates how improv can help people in their daily lives and might provide further research opportunities. For example, he wants to explore the lingering question of why the activity helps some people more than others.
Meanwhile, it is enlightening that scientific data disputes any presumption that improv causes increased anxiety. For some individuals, it actually quells anxiety through repeated exposure by increasing their tolerance of uncertainty. Read the latest Arts in Psychotherapy article here.
An NMU alumnus has made a careeer out of improv and performs at the club he owns called ImprovCity in Orange County, Calif. Read his feature, which briefly references Felsman's research, in the latest issue of Northern Magazine here.