How Improv Helped Me Manage My Jewish Anxiety

We Jews have been thought of as an anxious people, by ourselves and by others. In my case, baseline Jewish anxiety is compounded by the fact that I work at a brand-new start-up, compounded once again by the fact that it’s a Jewish start-up. Building something from the ground up requires experimentation, iteration, and failure. As a Type A Millenial, failure isn’t something I relish, or something I’m very good at processing. My deepest fears all center around public failure—this characteristic, when combined with an inherently risky endeavor like starting a new organization, was a recipe for white-knuckling it through my organization’s first (and pretty successful!) year of existence. As my colleagues can tell you, for much of our first year I was wound tighter than than a two dollar watch.

Rachel at iO

Enter the 5 day Improv Intensive at Chicago’s famous Improv Olympic (iO), where comedy legends like Mike Myers, Bill Murray, Amy Poehler, Stephen Colbert and   (it seems) everyone important in comedy honed their long-form improv skills.   After reading about the benefits of improv in the workplace, a colleague and I were interested in dipping our toes into the improv world. Our executive director gamely gave us the go-ahead to enroll in the intensive, which met for six hours a day for five days straight. And because I’m a Type A, overachieving Millenial, I also bought and read the Improv Bible “Truth in Comedy,” written by iO’s founder, Charna Halpern.

It turns out that improv isn’t about being funny. Laughs happen, but they’re really a byproduct of “terrific connections made intellectually, or terrific revelations made emotionally,” as Halpern writes. The skills of improvisation are actually about listening and communication, building on the ideas of others and creating a group mind, being adaptive and flexible, and most importantly, GETTING OUT OF YOUR OWN HEAD.

I know of no better definition for my particular brand of anxiety than being trapped in your own head, held hostage by a devious brain unspooling all sorts of worst-case scenarios. Improvisation demands that you stay anchored in the present and in what’s going on around you, rather than re-living the past or agonizing over the future. As Halpern explains, “An actor following each moment through to the next is constantly making discoveries…if he is planning ahead and thinking about the direction he wants the action to go, then he isn’t paying attention to what is going on in the moment.”

So, I failed plenty during improv. Plenty! Just ask my classmates At the start, I was so busy desperately searching for a clever line that I felt paralyzed on stage. It was terrifying, and a little embarrassing, and I’m sure it was hard to watch. But as the week went on, I learned to shrug off my failures, to dust myself off and get back on stage. To my surprise, the first time I got a laugh wasn’t when I was trying to be funny, but when I was responding authentically to what somebody else was doing on the stage. I learned that I could succeed just by being myself and making observations, because, as Halpern writes,  “The truth is funny.” Relaxing my control freak tendencies, getting out of my own head, and responding authentically without searching for the “perfect” answer allowed me to be successful in the context of improv.

Improv Class at iO

I have every reason to believe that cultivating these skills will also help me in my work; I’ll be a more collaborative colleague, a more creative and innovative thinker, and a more resilient person. What’s more, I have come to believe that the skills of improv are exactly the kinds of generative skills that Jewish communities can use to maintain the dynamism of our inherently creative tradition. Improvising doesn’t mean messily making things up, willy-nilly. One of the major principles of improv is “finding the game”—i.e., figuring out the pattern or “rule” of the game your scene partners are playing, and then using those constraints to create something new. Rules help us to focus our creative process and actually free us up to improvise. As you may know, there are no shortage of “rules” or patterns of behavior in Jewish tradition, which to my mind makes Jewish life ripe for a good dose of improvisation.

Most people would say that neurosis is the hallmark of Jewish comedy. As I’ve since learned since taking my class at the iO, several of the most important figures in improv’s development—Halpern, Ed Asner, Bernie Sahlins—were Jewish, which leads me to wonder if improv emerged, in part, as a response to dealing with Jewish anxiety, and whether it is improv and not neurosis that is the real Jewish art form. Perhaps that’s a topic for another time.

I’m considering signing up for more classes in the fall. After all, it’s cheaper than getting an analyst.

The author of this piece, Rachel Cort is the Director of Community Building Programs at jU Chicago, a project of the Institute for the Next Jewish Future. Her piece was originally posted here. Rachel recently participated in the NEXTwork convening in Chicago.