How Improv Has Been an Important Tool in My ACOA Recovery

By Erica Troiani 06/28/17

Suddenly I had the space to completely screw up and still be loved and supported, and that let me soar.

People rehearsing for a show
This adult child of an alcoholic has embraced improv performance for expression and healing, needs that had gone unheeded in her childhood.

Before I started my recovery as an adult child of an alcoholic, I’d been unknowingly doing a sort of drama therapy for years. I say “sort of” because it wasn’t actually therapy. It was improv comedy, and I got into it to perform not to work on myself. And, yes, while admitting that you do improv has become the 2010s version of “I’m a slam poet,” when it’s done badly, it’s very painful. But when it’s done well, it looks and feels like absolute magic.

And I wanted that magic. I wasn’t there yet, and the humiliation I felt at not being perfect at something immediately was very much holding me back. In rehearsals I often mistook my scene partner’s judgey characters personally. I couldn’t handle criticism. In shows, I too-desperately wanted the audience to like me, which was always (ALWAYS!) a surefire way to make them disdain me. And often when I did badly, the audience or my scene partners didn’t even need to judge me, because I was judging myself plenty enough to cover everyone’s share.

I’d been doing improv comedy for five years when I hit a plateau. The more workshops I took and skills I mastered, the clearer it was that the wall I was running into wasn’t a lack of knowledge or skill. It was my own damn self. My unresolved character defects as an ACOA were precisely what I was struggling with. I was a perfectionist and was controlled by my ego. I wanted all of the spotlight and acted a victim when I didn’t get it. I doubted my ideas and wouldn’t hold my ground. Then I’d boil with resentment that my unspoken needs weren’t being met. I was so self critical that I couldn’t hear anything over the sound of my internal voice berating me. Y’know, traits that are real helpful in an art form that’s created on the spot and dependent on teamwork.

These were patterns that emerged in my personal life and on stage, but onstage they were a more visible problem. It hadn’t even occurred to me yet that my upbringing caused me to act in these ways or that it was the thing holding me back. But continuously being in my own way made it clear that maybe I should go to therapy.

Once I’d made the connection, those destructive patterns started to fall away. But putting healthier habits into practice with real people and relationships felt panic-attack-inducing. On stage, however, I could practice them without the repercussions of rejection or abandonment. Improv became an additional tool in my recovery because it gave me a space to practice in a supportive, safe environment. It’s a cliche that the first rule of improv is “Yes, and,” which means that players must agree to the reality their scene partner creates and add a detail to it. And for me, all that group support was conducive to taking bigger, scarier risks.

It’s not surprising. There’s trend articles aplenty about the benefits of improv comedy classes and their ability to help co-workers loosen up, connect, and feel more comfortable in groups. Furthermore, they teach teamwork. Going beyond “yes, and” improv requires people work together, listen carefully and respond to their partner. In short, it flexes those vaunted emotional intelligence muscles.

As a kid, I never took up much physical space. It felt dangerous, in particular because the rules of what I could and couldn’t do were consistently changing. Or rather, I couldn’t gauge what would irritate my father and the best avoidance method was to shrink myself. I have one particular memory of being at my uncle’s sprawling house as a child when my relatives gave me a gift: a brand new Barbie. I was so excited to run and play, but I was too afraid to do so in the actual house, most of which was occupied by a huge open mezzanine with enough room to accommodate both playing children and anyone walking past. Yet I was frightened to do more than sit quietly in the corner.

And thus, I became a people pleasing adult, always more concerned with what everyone else thought than what mattered to me. So big surprise that what I struggled with most in performing was grabbing the ball and running. Basically: taking up space. And when a teacher pointed this out, the mere thought made my stomach do flip flops. I felt comfortable hiding in plain sight as a character onstage, but always the same one: wall clinger. My art problem was also my life problem. But that same teacher gave me a piece of advice that’s basically a mindfulness exercise. “Forget what everyone else thinks is funny, just notice what’s interesting to YOU.”

So I experimented with being louder, bigger, more present; I learned to see shows as my chance to unapologetically play with my Barbies in the middle of the hall. My chance to take up space in ways I’d never been allowed.

In life I had always been judgmental both of myself and others. But this defensive posture that had protected me as a kid made me remain an aloof adult, never participating and never being fully present. Once I suspended my judgment of myself and others in improv, I experienced the joy of leaping forward in a scene by saying yes, and soon enough, it was slightly less terrifying to do the same with new experiences in life. My judgment got in the way of that vulnerable quiet inner voice that might otherwise guide me to artistic discoveries. From a lifetime of always being unsure of the rules in my parents’ house, I’d learned to squash that voice down and not only refuse to give it a chance, but barely even hear it at all. And as much as improv puts an emphasis on teamwork, honoring my own voice and trusting my own impulses allowed me to actually contribute to that team.

I started playing huge characters I wasn’t sure I could sustain, using a loud and booming voice, and — hardest of all for me — starting scenes with only a half-formed idea. Sometimes it’d fall flat, but other times the ensemble would jump out and support whatever harebrained idea I’d had and miraculously we could make discoveries we never would have otherwise.

Suddenly I had the space to completely screw up and still be loved and supported, and that let me soar. It was about embracing the moment and not needing to control every final detail, as I (and many others in Al-Anon) often had before. Improv was the perfect place to practice throwing myself into the unknown and trusting that it’d be fine.

A couple years into this experiment, I had a show where I found myself in the middle of one of those scenes that give improv comedy a bad rep. It had started to flatline. My scene partner and I were growing more desperate. We didn’t know how to get the audience back. But rather than panicking that no one would love me or that the audience was being judgemental, I just acknowledged to myself what was happening. ‘This scene isn’t going well, and that’s okay,’ I thought. I relaxed into it.

And then I heard this tiny little impulse in the back of my brain that wanted, of all god awful things, to sing. Mind you, I’ve never enjoyed singing and I avoid the majority of musical theater, but there it was. My initial judgment reared up and started to push that impulse down, but I stopped it. If my impulse was to sing in that moment, could it hurt to honor it? So what if I looked like a fool? I was already pantomiming drinking out of a cup that wasn’t really in my hand, which, taken out of context, looks pretty stupid. I let that voice, that impulse, rise up, and I accepted it. I looked at my friend in the scene, not knowing what was about to come out and started the opening bars to a Green Day song. What I most definitely didn’t expect was that, without having any idea what I was doing, my friend sang right along with me. I don’t know if the audience found it funny, but it was certainly unexpected. More than anything, though, trusting someone to have my back in that way was positively magical. We were flying, and it was just a small taste of the roads that could open up in my everyday life if I trusted myself and my own instincts.

Erica Troiani is a pseudonym.

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