July 10, 2018; Dallas Innovates

In Dallas, there is a new nonprofit comedy theater in town—and its first nonprofit improv: Stomping Ground Comedy Theater’s Improv For Life.

“The Improv For Life program,” notes Meredith McGrath of Dallas Innovates, “started offering classes a year ago, led by licensed psychotherapist and improviser Andrea Baum.”

One of the classes is called Improv for Caregivers, reports McGrath. “There also are classes for people with autism, Alzheimer’s and dementia, anxiety, and brain injuries.”

McGrath explains the origins of the concept.

Baum, who worked in private practice and had always had a passion for improv, took classes in the evening after seeing patients during the day. She noticed through her classes that the life skills she was teaching her clients were naturally embedded in improv and started exploring national research on the benefits of improv on mental health.

When Baum heard of Lindsay Goldapp’s plans for the first nonprofit comedy theater in Dallas, she joined Stomping Ground’s board of directors and worked with Goldapp, who is Stomping Ground’s managing director, and the team to make Improv For Life part of the theater’s programming.

“One of the reasons why improv can be so therapeutic is because it’s a no-judgment zone, and we very much put that into place at the beginning,” says Baum.

Baum adds, “With mental health in general, there’s a big stigma to get help and pay for it, and just for it to be known that you’re actually getting mental health help, too, so this is a way that it can be accessible, and it’s also fun and interactive and social. It connects people, which a lot of time with mental health issues there can be a lot of isolation and disconnect.”

Of course, not all programs at the theater are therapy-focused. Stomping Ground also offers shows and classes for adults in “improv training, sketch comedy, stand-up comedy, and improvised song, as well as programs geared toward kids and teenagers” notes McGrath.

In terms of its business model, McGrath notes that “Stomping Ground receives funding from entertainment revenue, individual donations, and grants applied to its therapeutic programs.”

Improv works best when the actors have their minds set on the scene they’re unfolding on stage. That same practice of focusing on the present is effective in calming the mind and connecting with those around you. Baum focuses the Improv for Anxiety course around this principle of mindfulness: “If someone’s taking a regular improv class, too, they’re roleplaying everything that’s in their subconscious, and they’re getting to express themselves in all sorts of different ways,” she said. “Improv increases emotional intelligence and someone’s ability to express themselves and be aware of their emotions.”

“We’re in a time right now where how we’re communicating and treating one another is so important,” adds Baum. “Improv really teaches us to treat one another with respect and how to communicate in positive ways.”—Steve Dubb