Improv for Everyone: Aging Well with Improv

Our motto at the Brave New Workshop Student Union (BNW SU) is “Improv for Everyone. Improv for Life. Improv for Good.” Some of you reading this right now might be saying to yourself, well not EVERYONE…not ME. I hear this a lot. And here’s more: “Well I have a friend who would be great at improv. She’s so funny, but I could never do it.” Or, “My son would be great at that. He’s an extrovert and loves attention.”

When I hear these comments I always try to demystify the practice of improvisation and dispel the myth that it’s an art form reserved only for the young, funny and bold. It really could not be further from the truth. A core belief we’ve always had at the BNW SU is that improv IS for everyone. The myth that you have to be funny, or young, or male, or extroverted, or “creative,” (whatever that means), or ‘something that I am not,’ is a disservice to us as humans. The essence of practicing improv is simple – it is the very natural human act of jumping into the unknown and creating something instantaneously in that moment from pure imagination. We all do this. We are just sometimes conditioned to think we aren’t good at it. Practicing improv helps you reclaim the natural state of creative discovery that we are all born with.

One of my most favorite Improv for Everyone experiences from the past 20 years at the BNW has been watching the richness and expansion of our senior improv program. What started as a simple community offering more than 15 years ago in partnership with Jefferson School/Minneapolis Community Education has developed into a community of older adults who now consider their weekly improv practice an essential part of their lives. Several of them have been at it for five to eight years including student Linda Nation.

“I began taking improv classes because I needed to have more socialization in my life. My best friend moved suddenly and then a couple other friends I had moved as well. For six or seven months, I experienced feelings of loneliness and isolation and needed to meet new people. I checked out the community education listings and saw a class about acting and improv for people in the 55+ age group,” said Nation. “I could be with my people! So, I joined the Tuesday class about five years ago and I’ve been coming ever since. I love the community and this has made my life whole again.”

Talented Star Tribune writer Sharyn Jackson recently featured members of our long time senior improv program in a beautiful piece called “What’s so funny about aging? Minnesota seniors find vitality through improv comedy.” The story talks about ageism, some of the challenges of facing these stereotypes, and how practicing improv has helped our students reclaim their best selves. It’s a practice available to everyone and we have been supporting that since the day Dudley Riggs himself jumped from the circus high wire to life as an improviser.

It’s not unusual for people of any age, from 1 to 100, to practice all sorts of creative expression. Again, we are built for this as humans and we’ve been doing it since the beginning of time. But somehow the stereotypes and misperceptions and socialization around who should, can or does create art, expression, and play in our culture continues to mess with our psyches. Every day at the BNW SU, we remind people that improv is for everyone. Jump in and we will support you undeniably in your pursuit of your best life. In my 25+ years I have never seen someone who truly wants to practice improv, fail at improv. We are all improvisers.

“My life is much more playful when you accept the fact that we basically make up life as we go along. We don’t have to have it planned out,” said SU senior student Ray Hakko. “The improv mindset helps me out when I play with my four-year-old grandson. Kids have so much creative energy and I find that we made up a lot of games together. I feel that my new perspective with improv makes me a better person and a better partner. It probably makes me easier to live with because I’m more responsive, a better listener and more willing to agree and be more aware of how much I disagree.”

If you’re still reading this post and are ready to jump-in now, you’re in luck. We have a new senior improv class starting this coming Monday, June 19th at 12:30 PM. Grab a friend and check it out here. We’re ready to play with you!

Also, we have plans for additional senior programming for this Fall. To support this new initiative, we’re hosting a July 8th fundraiser in conjunction with the BNW Theatre main stage opening night for the premier of the BNW’s new show “Guardian of the Fallacy: Executive Disorder”. Funds raised from the opening night event will support further development of our Aging Well with Improv offerings. If you cannot support us at the event, we hope you will consider making a donation online.

– Jenni Lilledahl is the co-owner of the Brave New Workshop Theatre (along with her husband and co-improviser John Sweeney), president of the BNW’s Student Union (school of improvisation) and co-founder of Gilda’s Club Twin Cities.

Be Brave. Do Improv.