In February of last year, UNB Counselling Services teamed up with a local improv group, Hot Garbage Comedy, to create an innovative program called Improv for Confidence for students struggling with social anxiety and confidence. After a successful first session, the team is preparing for another installment this winter.
Mental health strategist at Counselling Services Matthew MacLean learnt of a theatre company in Toronto, Second City, running a similar program. Alongside Hot Garbage Comedy, he organized the first iteration of the program last winter.
Improv for Confidence is an adaptation of Second City’s initiative “Improv for Anxiety”, with a slight name change to promote inclusivity. The program uses improvisational theatre games and exercises to build confidence and skills in participants when interacting socially or speaking in public.
MacLean says that anyone who feels stress over communication, whether through day-to-day anxiety, a diagnosable mental illness or a particular class presentation, can benefit from exploring social interaction in such a low-risk environment. He explains that individuals with social anxiety often struggle with routine social interactions. The program is designed to provide a safe space for members to learn how to better approach those situations without the fear of messing up.
“It feels like there is such a great consequence to these interactions, but if you’re playing an improvisational theatre game, you learn that you can be silly and you don't have to know what you're going to say,” he said. “Real life encounters rarely go according to script.”
Maclean doesn’t believe that anxiety is inherently a negative; it all depends on the individual’s perception of the situation. Improv for Confidence aims to teach participants that their fight-or-flight instinct is not a bad thing, and gives them tools for working with that instinct in their daily lives instead of fighting it.
Jean-Michel Cliche, co-founder of Hot Garbage Comedy, identifies improv theatre as a powerful tool to teach communication and confidence.
“Improv is being used all over the world as a great social tool,” he said.
Each session of Improv for Confidence is focused and tailored to the group members. After warming up, participants take part in activities designed to slowly push them to build up new social skills. The instructors want to make sure the session is fun, and so spend a lot of time on games and activities that involved both verbal and nonverbal communication.
“If you didn't know it was an Improv for Confidence class specifically, you might think it looked like any other theatre class,” Cliche said. He goes on to commend all participants for their bravery in trying to better their situation and work past anxiety. He says the program focuses on that bravery, putting more emphasis on learning than on the theatre itself.
“It’s not about the performance, or the story we’re telling, or being funny. It’s just about the act of being brave.”
MacLean notes that participants began the program terrified, as expected, but found benefit in facing their fears.
“If you're terrified of something, it's usually a sign that it's going to be good for you,” he said. “If you do that thing you're afraid of and you survive it, which you always do, you gain something out of it.”
Despite low participation numbers, last year’s session was a resounding success according to Cliche. Participants expressed enjoyed themselves in addition to seeing personal improvement, which is not always the case in therapeutic programs or when working through anxiety.
“Overall the results were tremendously positive. We had people say that they felt they were out of their heads more, that they spent less time thinking about what they were going to say and simply speaking and following along with the conversation,” he said.
Inspired by the positive feedback, Hot Garbage and Counselling Services plan on reviving this program for a second year, starting in January.
“Things are always difficult to implement in their first year. We want to continue to offer and build this program,” said MacLean.
They plan on introducing a few changes to the program, including cutting down the number of meetings from eight to three. Cliche also mentioned that although improv is growing around the world, the Improv for Confidence program is still an experiment. The team wants to work toward building a curriculum and expanding on the “quantifiable results” gained from the experience.
Registrations are still open for the winter session of the Improv for Confidence program.