Improv-ing through grief: The Improv Room Reset

Content Warning: The following essay discusses a Covid-19 death and the grieving process


This essay was first published in the International Theatresports Institute Newsletter in May 2021.



At 5:42 pm we received the message that Sumit had suddenly passed away. He was barely 27. By 6:30 pm the General Manager of Kaivalya Plays and I had shared an announcement on our social media handles and apologised to each other if we had reacted too insensitively by moving so fast. The both of us have a tendency to drown ourselves in work to deal with our anxieties. But now with work done, our team members and collaborators informed, and no immediate activity to confront there is nothing ahead but an unsettling vacuum.


Over the next few days, another team member’s mother passes away, and many more have family in the hospital or are fighting to find space, oxygen or medicines. Every time we update each other, what begins to stand out is that none of us are completely sure why we are unable to react. One might expect sadness, desperation or hopelessness but the most common sentence we begin hearing is, “I don’t know how to react.” We have all gone numb. What compounds the difficulty is that no one knows what is OK, what behaviour is acceptable. Even more importantly, our work has never stopped. We have Spanish improv, Punjabi improv, an ensemble of Indian improvisers, and our weekly free jam space to facilitate. We decide not to cancel, probably out of fear at not knowing what to do with ourselves if we do. But is it OK that we are going ahead?


My numbness had begun to give way to anger. Sumit was my very gifted Spanish student and he followed me into the world of theatre looking for how to apply his learnings of the language in a country where there is no natural presence of it. He had found friends and a purpose in theatre and improv, most of all he had found relief while being isolated at home by attending our Spanish improv classes. He worked odd hours at a Spanish language call center and made up creative excuses to steal an hour to play improv. I’m not sure who I was angry at but the only sentence I could phrase was, “This was not supposed to happen.” I reached out to therapists who passed me onto more therapists, not a single one was available, equally overwhelmed by a collapsed healthcare system. At some point I lost the courage to keep asking for help. But I have never lost the drive to offer it.


Since May 13th, 2020 we have been offering a free weekly Improv jam space for anyone. Since we had returned to online work in March with our sessions of Improv for Mental Health, we realized that there were many more now who could not afford those classes. Rather than turn anyone away, we opened the jam room with no limit on participants to anyone. We tailored the games to be enjoyable to experienced improvisers as much as someone who has never improvised. We kept splitting people into breakout rooms ensuring there is never a moment when anyone is performing to an audience but, rather, all games are played with everyone simultaneously participating. We also simplified our safe space practice down to 2 simple rules: 1 - Don’t make fun of anyone else for any reason. 2 - Have fun!


In almost a year we had seen 2000+ unique participants from around the world, many regulars and some devoted attendees like myself. In that time we had also trained 4 new facilitators within our own team and had 8 guest facilitators from everywhere. Now, as I was asking myself if I was ready to get in the room and play games, I knew this was the only thing I was sure about, that I knew I wanted to do. Indeed, it was still improv that saved my life.


Reminding participants that they have agency over their own safety is perhaps the most powerful lesson we share. Your consent is never assumed for any game or exercise. You don’t have to explain to anyone why you felt uncomfortable during any game, you can simply step out. That you know you can take action to protect yourself without explaining why, eases anxiety before play starts rather than offering punitive action after an incident occurs. The first relaxes you to play fearlessly, the second would just make you feel at risk. It also highlights that me being here is a choice I keep making every time I play a game.


Today I add a line to my safety walk through: “It’s OK to laugh.” I’m reminding myself.


Improv is not the real world, it’s a relief from it. There’s a ton of guilt associated with laughing at stupid jokes when your country is on fire. Our ritualized check-ins seek to bring you into the room you’re working. Therefore, you’re also “checking out” of the larger environment outside and bringing your attention to the immediate environment in the Zoom room. From there you work backwards to reveal the general and larger environment until the world you occupy is your and scene partner’s own construction.


Once this “reset” takes place and you’re in the room we work on getting participants to cooperate, take away competition, and encourage the participants not to judge the “mistakes” they make as they play. We ask participants to shout, “I love it!” to each other’s endowments, to find a reason why the gift they got from a partner is exactly what they needed, and to speak in gibberish so they don’t feel compelled to make sense all the time. The gradually ensuing feeling is of letting go of control, of self-judgment and to realize they can offer each other support just by saying yes to an offer.


I used to struggle with this last idea with many of my students, especially as I applied improv games to my Spanish language classes. “You conjugated the verb wrong!” the pedantic student would yell at his devastated classmate. “Accept her gift and find a reason why it’s useful for you!” I would holler back. “But she’s wrong!” came the horrified reply. “It doesn’t matter!” I would sigh into a cup of coffee gone cold. “But I want to be right!” he would insist. “Sumit, all words at some point didn’t exist. Somebody decided to make them all up, and over time they kept changing, evolving. The Spanish you are speaking is just bad Latin. The only thing that counts is if you can make yourself understood. Beyond that, remember that the value of what you say should be as important as its grammar.”