Dear Anxious Improvisers

Dear Anxious Improvisers

As a lot of people do, I came to improvisation through anxiety. Our classes at drama school were, for a bookish mature student who had previously wanted to be an academic, very challenging. Panic-attack-and-can’t-sleep kind of challenging. Those Friday morning classes felt like the test the whole week was building up to. It was only when I started improvising more regularly that I realised that extreme anxiety wasn’t an obligatory part of the experience, or even, indeed, necessarily a problem. And even then, I would often wish for a traffic accident as I cycled to a gig.

Because improv could be designed to cause anxiety. We can’t prepare in any meaningful way, we have expectations of being funny (or moving, or whatever your metric is) and we worry about the consequences if we are not. If anxiety is a misfiring of the vigilance that would have historically kept us alive and part of the group, improv classes are like a psychological stress position. And on top of all of the personal considerations, we worry that we are letting everybody down, that people are wishing they were working with someone else. Even when we know cognitively that it is not the case, it is easy to feel we are ruining the class for everyone. The thought sits there like a toad. 

But here’s the really important thing about improv and anxiety. You’re not broken because you have it. You’re not getting improv wrong, or getting human wrong. A lot of us improvisers have it, even very experienced ones. It’s a part of the human experience which we can learn to manage if necessary. People don’t start running because they are already fit. They run to get fit, then keep running to stay that way. Worrying that improv sometimes makes you anxious is like worrying that running makes your legs ache and your face red. 

Of course anxiety doesn’t hit me anywhere near as badly now. I can generally say ‘Hello old friend’ to the sweaty palms and thumping heart, soften the occasional brain-freeze, and avoid the spiral of self-accusation. Of course I would say this, but improv really does help with anxiety.

Here’s how: The more often we do something, the less adrenaline and cortisol our body pumps into our system. Novelty stimulates, but the physical symptoms reduce as your body get to accept that there is no physical threat. That you went to an improv class and no one, at any point, died. You acclimatise. Even when an improv exercise is familiar, it still creates new material and situations that we need to get used to. I have played many many scenes in my life, but the next one will (I hope) still be different. By constantly presenting novelty, improv gets us used to getting used to things. 

Now I cannot blithely say ‘don’t worry, it will magically go away’, but here’s a strange thought about anxiety and improv: On average, it will probably only reduce. However anxious you are now is probably the most anxious you will ever be. That might be very anxious, but it will only get easier. ‘Nervous’ is physiologically the same as ‘excited’ and as your physical symptoms reduce, you can rebrand them, learn to use the energy they bring, channel it into what you are doing. 

And as your anxiety in classes reduces, this ease will often spread out into the rest of your life. By gently acknowledging the anxious voice in your head without giving it power, you will find yourself softer and more open in many situations. It’s not a magic bullet, and it is no substitute for the right talking cure or prescription if your symptoms are very bad (I still go to a therapist and take Propranolol for panic attacks), but improv can slowly decrease the intensity and power of anxiety by allowing you to face the demon head-on in situations where the outcome (let’s face it) is really not very important. 

Here are some concrete strategies for reducing anxiety around improv classes. 

  1. Be kind to yourself, you’re allowed to be bad at this – You will hear this a lot in improv classes, but I cannot overstate how important it is. If you spend all of your time expecting your improv to be brilliant, you will choke. It’s a class, not a performance. If you get it right immediately, there was no point coming. Let yourself be bad at improv. I promise you, it’s OK. 
  2. Look out for your partner – Shifting your focus away from yourself is very powerful in improvisation. Rather than trying to be good, try to give your partner what they want in this scene. Be psychic, finish their ideas, make them the star. Thinking about something other than yourself is a powerful weapon against anxiety. 
  3. Prepare for the class – Especially with classes on Zoom, it is easy to arrive last minute and flustered, stuffing down the last mouthful of your dinner. Think about what you do before class. Take time to meditate or go for a walk (no phone checking allowed), then be in place ten minutes before class starts. Maybe listen to a song that makes you feel either relaxed or powerful. Take deliberate steps to manage your psychological and physical state. 
  4. Remember what you enjoyed – After class, sit for a few minutes and remember the fun things that happened. Start to keep a top-five list in your head of moments you enjoyed and think about them before you take your next class. Teach your brain to make the improv/fun connection faster than the improv/anxiety one. 
  5. Talk about it – Lots of the Nursery/Maydays teachers suffer or have suffered with anxiety. We get it. And I bet a bunch of your classmates do too. You are not alone. So drop us an email the day before your class, or message your teacher when you arrive to tell them what is going on. You might even want to mention it to the whole class. You can also arrange a phone chat by emailing our education team on classes@thenurserytheatre.com or me on jules@thenurserytheatre.com.

Photo Credit: Mark Dawson

Jules Munns
Jules Munns
jules@thenurserytheatre.com

Jules is the Artistic Director of the Nursery Theatre. Jules is also the director of Impromptu Shakespeare and a member of the Maydays, as well as one half of Ten Thousand Million Love Stories.

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