Improv is Pure Joy

By Elesa Labanz

One of the many benefits of turning 50 was that I suddenly found myself on the other side of the Indifference Threshold. Crossing the indifference threshold gives you the opportunity to see what your life can be like when you stop caring what people might be thinking about you. Suddenly you sign up for activities without any fear or shyness. You say the thing that’s actually on your mind. You’re not afraid to leave people behind as you Find Your Tribe. You suddenly can be 100 percent yourself 100 percent of the time.

Part of that journey brought me to Improv Cincinnati. I decided that the year 2018 would be a year where Jeff (my husband) and I would discover new things and try new adventures. Improv had always looked like fun on shows like "Whose Line Is It Anyway." Truly flying without a net, as they say. I signed us up for a workshop and laughed more in those two hours than I think I have laughed in a year previously. It truly was joy in its purest sense.

Improv is All About Being in the Moment

Improv is such a present and immediate exercise that your brain absolutely has nowhere else to go. There is no chance to obsess or even daydream because you must be entirely focused on what is happening in front of you so you will be ready to respond. I discovered that there is a joy in that focus that I have never found anywhere else. And laughing. Did I mention laughing? With all our emphasis on mindfulness, I certainly believe that there must be great health benefits from the combination of laughter and being in the moment.

Hospice and Improv

In my father’s final years, living with dementia, I learned that the easier thing for him – and for me – was to treat our conversations as a scene from improv. Instead of pushing back and reminding him of everything he had lost and had forgotten, I responded “yes and” to any request he made. “I want my car back.” “Yes, dad, and that’s something you will want to talk to your doctor about right away.” “When can I move back home?” “That’s a great idea, dad, you let me know when the doctor gives you the green light.” Before that I would respond with “no, dad, remember you’re not allowed to … you don’t remember … you can’t … You just can’t.” I would leave the encounter sad, scared, guilty. He would leave the encounter sad, scared, angry and depressed.

This couldn’t possibly be the best way, I decided. So I stopped fighting. I let go of my desire for him to see reason. Instead I attempted to put his power back in his hands. I knew he wouldn’t remember to ask the doctor. I knew he would ask these questions again and again. But I also knew that wasn’t the point. A pleasant encounter that did not leave him sad and scared was the point. Later, as I became a hospice volunteer, I drew on my experience with my father and did not deny the reality of the person in front of me.

Not too long after that, I was listening to NPR and heard that some senior centers and nursing homes were having their staff take some specially-designed improv classes to help them better communicate with their patients. Ah ha! I thought. That’s what I thought all along – what a wonderful idea.

Life is all about adventure. I went on to take two more eight-week Improv courses and look forward to continuing in the fall. Pure Joy. You should try it.