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#OTGYpsi: 'Improvisation Heals'-Where art and healing intersect


Concentrate Ann Arbor

Sarah Rigg's Feature Article: Ypsilanti mental health practice promotes healing through improv

Back Office Studio

Improvisation Heals

Improvisation Heals on Facebook

Miriam Kirscht Contact Info


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and welcome to another edition of On the Ground Ypsilanti. It's our weekly look at the people, organizations, and businesses that are working in solution-oriented ways to enhance the quality of life in Ypsilanti. Our content partner is Concentrate Media, and Sarah Rigg serves as its On the Ground Ypsi project manager. And in the article published today, Sarah, you explore the intersection of artistic expression and personal well-being with the founder of an innovative, Ypsilanti-based program.

Sarah Rigg: Yes. Hi, David. I did my story this week about a business and a series of workshop called Improvisation Heals, and it's about addressing anxiety and other mental health issues through improvisational theater games.

David Fair: And Miriam Kirscht is the founder and innovator and our other guest in studio today. Thank you so much for making time.

Miriam Kirscht: Sure.

David Fair: Miriam, what in your life brought together the concept of using improvisational skill to enhance a therapeutic process?

Miriam Kirscht: Well, from childhood, I've loved theater and drama, and I was in plays and musicals workshops in theater ever since I was pretty small. And I found it to be really therapeutic for me in the sense that I could express things I couldn't normally express at home or in school. And, also, I could be in front of people and make a fool of myself, and they supported me. So those are some central tenets of improv that I feel are very healing.

David Fair: Did that early experience lead you into what you made your chosen profession of social work?

Miriam Kirscht: It actually did. I had a major in theater, and I went to a theater workshop in Connecticut and so on, and I started to get restless with the idea of just being an actor. Instead, I wanted to do something that made a difference, and I actually wrote a short play about my family and was done in a staged reading. And I thought, "Wow, this is really cool. I could actually use the theater to help people communicate differently."

David Fair: Did it help the family?

Miriam Kirscht: Did it help my family?

David Fair: Yeah.

Miriam Kirscht: Well, they came and saw it. And my mom and dad did. They didn't say a whole lot about it, except...well, my mother said, "I never said that to you."

David Fair: I've had those conversations.

Miriam Kirscht: So, that kind of sparked my interest in using theater in social work.

David Fair: I think, for many, when we think therapeutic process, that most often consists of a one-on-one session in kind of a closed office or even in a small group setting, you know, that it is somehow focused on the more personal. So, how does improvisation change that dynamic?

Miriam Kirscht: Well, it gets people to get out of their heads and the intellectual concepts and such. It gets people into their bodies and into the space in an immediate way, which really helps with actually changing something.

David Fair: These drop-in sessions are held at the Back Office Studio space in downtown Ypsilanti. Sarah, what has been the reaction to Improvisation Heals from those at B.O.S.?

Sarah Rigg: I know Miriam told me that somebody who has space there comes to her classes. Of course, we couldn't go into details for confidentiality reasons. But I also talked to Kristen Danko, who's the community manager at Back Office Studio, and she comes from a theater background as well and thought that this was just a really cool group and told me that she's really hoping to see it grow.

David Fair: On the Ground Ypsi continues on 89 one WEMU with Concentrate Media Project Manager Sarah Rigg and our guest, Miriam Kirscht. Miriam is founder of Improvisation Heals. And Miriam, despite what I do for a living, I'm a devout introvert. How do you address people like me and those who may have some social anxieties?

Miriam Kirscht: I give them some evidence that this actually works, which there's actually more and more studies showing improvisation has a beneficial effect on mental health. Often, I get people to attend by talking about my own experience with drama, maybe having them look some stuff up on the web. But our relationship--really, that's the basis--once they get to the group, and they see that they're not going to get judged or criticized. They generally are able to get with the program and get out of themselves.

David Fair: Like most things, it comes down to a sense of trust, doesn't it?

Miriam Kirscht: Yes.

David Fair: Yeah.

Miriam Kirscht: Trust in each other.

David Fair: I want to come back to perception for a moment when I think of improv, I think of comedians. I think of theater troupes. I think of people who are trying out material for the sake of performance. How do you take that process and go deeper to address some of the issues the participants may be trying to overcome?

Miriam Kirscht: Well, I use some basic improvisation exercises to target fear of uncertainty, for example, which is a big part of anxiety. You wanted to all be laid out, right? They can begin to expose themselves to uncertain situations and see that they can do it.

David Fair: It really is hard, though, to give up that sense of control. And that's what it is, isn't it? Sense of control?

Miriam Kirscht: Yeah, yeah.

David Fair: Sarah, in doing your research for the article and in the conversations you had with Miriam, did you find that there's a thematic approach as a part of taking a deeper dive?

Sarah Rigg: So, yes. What Miriam told me is that originally she just had people come in and the topic was just improv, although it was focused on people who have anxiety and social anxiety. But, more recently, she's instituted some different themes like overcoming shyness, developing confidence, things like that.

David Fair: Once again, this is 89 one WEMU, and we're talking with Concentrate Media On the Ground Ypsi project manager Sarah Rigg and the founder of Improvisation Heals, Miriam Kirscht. With that theme of social anxiety and building confidence. Miriam, how do you direct those energies? How might you start a session?

Miriam Kirscht: Well, I greet everybody. I have us do a physical exercise first just to kind of loosen up.

David Fair: The mind follows the body?

Miriam Kirscht: Yes. Yes, right. And then we do introductions if we need to an introductory game, like saying your name and putting emotion with your name. And then everybody does everybody else's kind of echoing it, and that loosens people up and introduces them. And then, probably, a warm-up. That's something I've learned through experience. No, you can't just have him jump right into, you know, some complex game. They need to be warmed up. So, I would do something to kind of warm up imagination, warm up spontaneity. And one example of that would be the game zip zap bob. So, you send energy with a zip. Then the next person says, "Zap." The next person says "Zop." And you tried to get it going really fast. So people are just in the--

David Fair: And they have fun until the chain breaks, right?

Miriam Kirscht: Yeah. Until somebody goes, "Uh uh uh."

David Fair: Yeah, that would be me. What you're describing is kind of a slow build through the session where you see people actually starting to step out of their shell, but perhaps in meaningful ways.

Miriam Kirscht: Yes. Yes.

David Fair: Sarah, are there any age limitations or financial restrictions that might prevent someone who is interested in participating?

Sarah Rigg: Miriam told me she originally had thought about focusing this on younger adults from 18 to 30, because they are the ones who are struggling with social isolation right now. But now, it's for any adults 18 and up, and there is a cost. But I believe, and Miriam can go into detail if necessary, that there's a pay what you can option for people who might not be able to afford it.

David Fair: So, it wants to be you want it to be as inclusionary as possible.

Miriam Kirscht: Absolutely. Yeah. So it's pay what you can.

David Fair: I know this is a program that's only been underway for a couple of months at this point, but are you finding that people are coming back for more? Because it seems to me that one session of just about anything isn't enough that longer term successes and breakthroughs come from repetition and building on the lessons that we learn about ourselves early in the process.

Miriam Kirscht: Yup, absolutely. And people, yes, people are coming back. We have a little core of regulars now, which is very cool.

David Fair: Where does the program go from here?

Miriam Kirscht: Oh, that's a good question. I'm hoping to start doing regular workshops that have themes like social anxiety, even interpersonal conflict, depression, things like that, so that I can actually offer ongoing workshops that are not drop-in. They're a series. I also hope to consult to therapy practices and maybe workplaces and kind of show them how to use it. I actually did an improvisation with one of the psychiatrists.

David Fair: How did that go?

Miriam Kirscht: Oh yeah, it went pretty well. He was kind of a very professional seeming guy. So, to see him kind of say, "Well, this scares me" was sort of interesting.

David Fair: It's been interesting to take your therapeutic and social work background into the improvisational realm. How are you taking the improvisational realm back into the practice?

Miriam Kirscht: Well, for a long, long time. I've been using theater and improvisation in my practice. I started out using it when I worked in substance abuse, which was a long time ago. So, I started doing role plays in the groups that I led, like a role play of a family. The person's drunk, and how do you respond to that? How do you respond to family members that are used to seeing you always high or drunk? And now you're not. That actually really caught fire. A lot of people like doing that.

David Fair: If people want to find out more about what it is you do, where you do it and how they might become involved? What's the best resource to do so?

Miriam Kirscht: I have a website. It's improv heals--all one word--dot weebly dot com. You can go to my Facebook page, the Facebook page of Improvisation Heals. It's a unique name, so you should be able to find it. Or you can also email me at Kirscht 37 at gmail.com and express your interest.

David Fair: Well, once again, thank you so much for the time. That is Miriam Kirscht, a social worker and founder of Improvisation Heals in downtown Ypsilanti and our guest on On the Ground Ypsi. Sarah Rigg is On the Ground Ypsi project manager at Concentrate Media and our content partner for this weekly segment, Sarah, thank you so much, and we'll look forward to your next visit.

Miriam Kirscht: Thanks, David.

David Fair: You can find Sarah's article at Second Wave Media dotcom slash concentrate, and you can get there by clicking the link on our OTG Ypsi web post at WEMU dot org. I'm David Fair, and this is Eighty-Nine one WEMU FM and WEMU HD one Ypsilanti.

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Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
Sarah has been involved in journalism since she began producing a one-page photocopied neighborhood "newspaper" in grade school, later reporting for and then editing her high school paper. She has worked on staff at Heritage Newspapers and the (now defunct) Ann Arbor Business Review and has written as a freelancer for various publications ranging from The Crazy Wisdom Journal to the News-Herald to AnnArbor.com. She began writing for Concentrate in February 2017.
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