Improv(e) Your Mental Health

The last few weeks have been rough at a personal level. I was already sliding into another depressive episode over the monumental detachment of various global crises as the Amazon burned, Alaska ran out of ice, another kind of ICE was running concentration camps and diseases we had once conquered were returning due to our own ignorance.

As the UK government shut down its own Parliament, I realised “At last! This is an issue in which I can actually be involved, and lend some effort to solving!” And so I took up that cause with a vain zealotry, thinking I might make an impact.

That cause was not without emotional cost for me and a few friends. You can read about why here! But the short version is that it turns out that being surrounded by people who are deliberately hostile and threatening can have a powerful effect on your state of mind.

Fortunately, it turns out that being surrounded by people who are deliberately supportive and encouraging can also have a powerful effect on the way you feel.

Please note that in this article I’ll be talking about a lot of emotional “stuff”. And also please note that I am in no way advocating going on an Improv retreat as a substitute for actual clinical therapy or counselling. It just so happened that an Improv retreat really helped me right when I needed it to.


On a Saturday, five days before heading off to the Mayday’s Annual September Improv Retreat, I was hungover and failing to deal with my own state of mind following a horrible incident with a group of racists in London a week earlier. So I spent all day on the sofa watching first ‘The Dark Crystal’, and then the newly-released ‘The Dark Crystal: Age Of Resistance’ on Netflix.

Both are excellent, the new series especially, and highly recommended. I connected strongly with the themes of the show and ended up crying so much that the next day, the muscles in my face literally hurt with DOMS.

Over the next few days I just sank further into a depressive state, not really wanting to leave the flat and quietly debating if I even wanted to go to a five-day Improv retreat in an isolated rural location with dozens of strangers, or whether I’d rather just stay at home and vaguely dissolve into the sofa.

I ended up choosing to go to the retreat, and that ended up being a smart choice.


The Maydays are a company of professional improvisers (and actors, musicians and singers) in the UK who run classes, workshops and courses teaching people how to improvise. They also run their own shows (one of which I reviewed here) and are involved in a variety of other projects at an individual level.

Their September retreat is a five-day event based in a large country house in Dorset. Each day (except the first) features a programme of classes that you can choose from, each led by a Mayday and each covering different topics. Some cover basic techniques, others cover longform, or narrative techniques, and there’s a strong selection of musical improv classes, where you can learn to improvise songs. (A review of Baron Sternlook, a musical group in Birmingham, can be found here.)

Whilst you may have many opportunities to join Improv workshops depending on where you live, it’s rare to be able to devote days at a time to learning Improv without travelling to the Uunited States. As such, the Maydays’ Retreat is an incredible opportunity for new and experienced improvisers alike to simply immerse themselves in the art, uninterrupted.


The first evening after I arrived was mixed. Everyone was friendly, and I managed to enjoy a few social interactions, particularly a round of frisbee in the evening sun. However, I felt awkward through every conversation, and felt a little more tired and foolish and uncertain after every interaction. After the evening show I retreated to bed early.

The first full day, Thursday, was worse. A headache set in, social anxiety ramped up, and I was incapable of getting through a single scene in workshops without feeling horrendously clumsy and by turns domineering and completely passive. Scenes and exercises I would normally breeze through felt stilted and jarring. I tried to spend every moment out of class away from people, as far away as possible. I ended up skipping the final class of the day to hide in the fields around the house and lie quietly on the grass pretending that the Sun might somehow, in a Superman-ish fashion, restore some of my strength. It sadly didn’t, and I went to bed as soon as I could.

Everyone was still lovely and friendly, and I really wanted to be in the thick of things, chatting with people and getting to know them. But the periods of self-inflicted isolation left me feeling like I was missing out, and that frustration then made me feel more anxious, making me retreat into deeper isolation.

The Maydays freely offer to speak to anyone feeling overwhelmed during the retreat, and encourage participants to do so. But the feedback loop is real, and every little cycle of anxiety and depression makes reaching out even harder. Which is stupid and self-destructive.


Friday was a strange day.

I woke up feeling a little more intact, and in a moment of Lovecraftian delirium I put my name forwards for all three musical classes being run that day, one after the other. I expected that the Algorithm which assigned classes based on listed preferences might allocate me to one of those sessions. Instead, it allocated me to all three.

I started Improv classes almost exactly two years ago, in September 2017, and since then have sworn blind that I would never even attempt musical improvisation. Improvised has been my nightmare, mostly because I’ve spent most of my life aware of the particular quality of my voice that manages to somehow be simultaneously nasal and shrill with a mucky Scouse accent to boot. Indeed, I can’t think of a fear greather than having to sing in public. Except maybe for spiders.

Why I chose to do even one musical class, never mind three, is beyond reason, but it’s probably rooted somewhere between being repeatedly told that I should “face my fears,” and my refusal to lose an argument to anybody. I think the internal logic was that if I tried it once, I could confidently tell people that it was not for me and they wouldn’t be able to respond with “but you need to try the things you’re afraid of.”

The first session, group singing, was painful. I couldn’t keep a note (as expected) and my nerves kept my knees shaking and the rest of me sweating like a Tory in a state school. It was about as rough as I thought it would be.

However our teacher, Heather, maintained such a warm and supportive atmosphere that the impulse to stay seated and refuse to participate, or even to leave the class, never got the better of me. No matter how uncertain the performer, every performance was met with encouragement and praise from the whole class, and regardless of how terrified I felt every time I stood up to take my turn, I sat back down feeling like I had just succeeded alongside all my scene partners, regardless of how out of tune I was or how much I stumbled through improvised lyrics.

The most surprising thing is that by the end of the session, I was actually looking forward to the next musical class rather than dreading it.

By the start of the next session, focusing on lyrics, anxiety had taken hold again and I didn’t feel much more confident than at the beginning of the first class. This was a pattern that seemed persistent for me with musical classes: start out extremely nervous, build confidence over the lesson, and lose most of that confidence before the next lesson. All the same, Heather kept supporting and encouraging, and by the end of the second class I was feeling triumphant – having managed to sing on my own (although still as tunelessly).

My mood had improved enough that I even spent a good portion of the lunch break with other people, just relaxing and chatting in the sunshine, without feeling the desperate, clawing need to escape to solitary self-confinement.

The third class of the day was folk singing, led by Rhiannon. Despite my enjoyment of the earlier classes, the nerves once again hit hard as the reality of more public singing set in. But Rhiannon was just as supportive as Heather, and by the time the folk singing was done I was again feeling heroic.

All three lessons were supported – if not carried – by Joe, the Mayday’s incredibly talented pianist. Joe’s fantastic ability to not just play beautifully but also to adjust his playing to the tone and tempo of whoever was singing made every exercise and performance feel like a tightly-rehearsed Broadway musical.

Most of all, every group of students in each class was as encouraging as the teachers, and being in such a positive environment had a powerful effect. Feeling as though no matter what you do you won’t be judged or criticised leaves you feeling dangerously empowered and emboldened to take risks and to reach outside of your comfort zone, and I’m grateful to everyone with whom I shared those classes for being so completely supportive.

When I first saw that I was booked in for three musical sessions in a row, I genuinely believed I might end the day completely miserable. But the combined efforts and good natures of three Maydays and a whole host of enthusiastic improvisers saw me finishing the day feeling absolutely unafraid of anything. Except maybe for spiders.

After one more none-singing lesson, Friday was rounded off with an incredible long-form show put on by the Maydays – the best example of an Armando I’ve ever seen, in fact, and if you don’t know what that means… well, it’s an Improv thing. Finally, there was an insanely fun space-themed Jam hosted by Katy and Chris wearing wonderful spacepunk outfits.

Later, a handful of us wandered out in the dark to do a little stargazing. After that, a friend and I headed back out into the fields to sit under stars and discuss all manner of in-depth topics. We went back inside well past midnight to find a few indefatigable and impressively flexible stragglers picking strips of cardboard off the flaw using only their teeth (we were assurred that this was some kind of party game). I went to bed very late, and peacefully happy.


On Saturday I was booked into two more musical sessions, and I didn’t feel quite as worried as I had been the day before.

The first was “Musical Living Room” with Lloydie.. The Living Room is a casual long-form format, and Lloydie took us through its structure with as much love and support and Heather and Rhiannon. My nerves had returned, but I found it easier to push them aside this time, particularly as there was more group singing – and group singing offers many more opportunities to hide.

The second musical class was all about “truth in song”, led by Katy. Right from the start we were singing lines on our own, and my nerves suddenly blossomed once more. But as before they subsided more quickly, and once again this was helped by the universally supportive environment.

I think it was this point that I realised that I pretty much had the musical improv “bug”. The thought of singing solo was still scary, but one thing nobody had really told me before was that singing in a group, or even just as part of a group song, makes you feel connected to that group more than anything else I’ve ever experienced. Joining your voice with others. supporting them as they support you, is a unique and lovely experience that was completely new to me, and it occurred to me that I would like to keep doing it.

This notion of mutual support was crystalised in the third Saturday class, “Narrative Ensemble”, with Heather. Here, she said something that was probably more profound than it seemed in the moment. As a group of us stood up in front of the rest of the class to attempt a specific exercise, she said:

“Just go through the exercise, and whatever you do, we’ll all clap like idiots.”

This is a concept that I adore. The simple notion of “whatever you do, we’ll treat it like it’s the best fucking thing we’ve ever seen.” It’s not even a new concept particularly – Jon Trevor has always maintained that the mantra of every improviser should be “I am average, my partner is a genius and a poet.” But the “we’ll clap like idiots” version applies off the stage, too.

I’ve been conscious for a while that you can practice your improv skills even as an audience member – that just by attending shows you’re showing support, but by paying attention, laughing along and making your enjoyment as clear as possible, you’re supporting those people who are brave enough to get on stage and perform in public in a very vulnerable, very exposed manner.

There’s an in-joke of saying “Improv Is Not A Cult,” implying that it actually can be a fairly cult-like environment. I don’t necessarily think that’s true, but if it is, I’d like to think it’s a cult of ethos, and that the ethos is “We Support Each Other Mutually And Unconditionally.” I’d like to think that, unless you’re a proper arsehole, the Improv community will always have your back.

I also know I don’t live up to this ethos myself. I’ll have a moan about other groups and performers if I don’t think they measure up, likely a residual trait from years spent whinging about TV and movies on this very blog. But it’s something I’m going to work on going forwards – I want to be a better improviser, and part of that is being a better part of the community.

I spent the fourth session of Saturday skipping class and sitting in what will likely by the last bit of warm, sunny weather I’ll experience in 2019. But I did this not because I was scared or craving isolation, but rather simply because I knew I would enjoy it, and felt confident going back to the social hubbub later on. Two amazing days in a possitive, loving environment had left me feeling confident enough to make that choice freely.


Saturday night was one of the greatest nights of my life.

The day before, the Maydays had requested suggestions for a show they would perform completely off the cuff – something they had never tried before and that would allow them to take the same kind of risks that they asked of their students.

I wrote “Rock Opera Journey Through Hell” on a slip of paper and put it in the hat. I wrote that it could be a lost soul’s journey through the afterlife, and that it could be a rock opera because “fuck yeah.”

Well, that’s the one that the Maydays picked.

Once I realised what they were doing, I sat in the audience grinning from ear to ear for the entire performance.

The show started off with modestly dressed accountants sharing a bottle of prosecco on a work night out. One of them said she had actually stolen the bottle from the restaurant, and then she unfortunately died from a heart attack.

The lights dropped.

When the lights came back on, everyone was in rock band attire, including Joe in a huge wig and aviators.

FUCKYEAH2
Fuck yeah.

What followed was genuinely one of the most incredible live performances I’ve ever seen in my life. That’s… I mean, I may be biased, but it was absiolutely fucking flawless. It’s actually difficult to describe because I’d basically just end up writing “It was amazing” 1,500 times in a row. When it finished, there was a standing ovation.

I need to take a moment to explain that none of it was prepared – to the best of my knowledge, “rock opera” wasn’t even a style of music the Maydays had ever tried before. The preparation they got was being told by Liz and Katy an hour before the show what the theme of the show would be, being told “It will start with a normal scene, one character will die, then it will be set in Hell.” They spent five minutes rumaging through a costume box to pull together some suitable outfits that they then hid under baggy jumpers and hoodies.

There were so many amazing choices throughout the whole show. Wonderful little touches and details. And so much energy! The only scene that didn’t draw unstoppable laughter from the audience was a touching encounter between the main character and the ghost of her mother.

The whole thing was a testament to what can be achieved from an improvised performance with enough style, gusto and courage. From start to finish the performers had the momentum of a tidal wave, and the audience got pulled right along with them.

Even now, I think back to various moments from the show and get a little rush of happiness in the back of my head. Indeed, I’m almost sad that I may never get to see anything like it ever again. But I’m thrilled I got to see it at all.

It was amazing. It was amazing. It was amazing. (x 500).

fuckyeah
FUCK YEAH

The Rock Opera Journey Through Hell was followed by a great little disco where those of us so inclined danced ourselves silly through a selection of “celebrity guest” DJs who took turns to play us their favourite songs. In another room there were board games, whilst outside there was a bonfire, and it was essentially a perfect evening to spend with new friends.


Sunday was exactly as sedate as it needed to be.

I had one more musical class, with Rhiannon, where we practiced “scenes into song.” By now, my nerves were more under control, and I felt better able to just enjoy this class for what it was, rather than having to wrestle with my own insecurities. An hour and a half singing and harmonising with friends is a beautiful way to spend a rainy Sunday morning.

I also took part in ‘Cuckoo’s Nest’ with John Cremer.

If you’re an experiened improviser and you ever have chance to take part in ‘Cuckoo’s Nest’ with John Cremer, you should do so. And that’s all I can say about that.

Following a lovely little afternoon showcase and many heartfelt goodbyes, we all headed home. In the sky overhead was an enormous rainbow, and I don’t know if there’s a better visual to represent such an incredble event than that.

rainbow


Improv will always be a very personal experience, hence the very personal nature of this article. Attempting to sum up events objectively will always be a misrepresentation, because subjectivity kind of the essence of the art of improvisation.

Throughout the entire five days away, I got a better understanding of the term “impostor syndrome.” Every time I felt a little more confident or bold or sociable, I’d mentally slap myself down, thinking “No, you’re not meant to be confident, you’re feeling anxious and scared and isolated.” If I did something I was proud of in a scene, or managed to sing an improvised line without scrunching up my face in embarrassment, I’d feel dishonest and manipulative, like some kind of weird reverse-fraudster.

But facing a room full of people who were just happy and smiling and clapping and laughing helped fight that self-loathing. Spending time outside of classes with buoyant, joyful people who were simply happy to be spending time with one another helped to build a foundation of confidence and self-assurredness.

I met many amazing people at the Maydays’ September Retreat 2019. I hope I will see them again. Even if I do, I may not have chance to explain to them how much they helped me out at a time when I really needed a little help. The fact that I started crying again as I wrote this paragraph is probably testament to that.

I didn’t have to ask for any help. Most people there probably didn’t realise that I was struggling, but they didn’t have to. They simply demonstrated that by being universally supportive and encouraging, as all improvisers should be, you can make it easier for people to find a little happiness.

My experience a couple of weeks earlier with a bunch of racist thugs in London taught me that I was far more susceptible to threatening, aggressive behaviour than I had previously thought. But my experience at the Maydays’ retreat taught me that I’m also more susceptible to friendliness and compassion thanI had previously thought.

I’m still not okay. I still struggle with controlling the depression and anxiety that follows a distressing experience, as well as anger and even resentment. I probably still need to get some actual clinical treatment at some point.

But I know that I can overcome it, and that I can be helped. I better understand the power of mutual support both on and off the stage, and it’s something I want to work on and become better at. It’s given me a new life goal, which is to bring that Improviser’s ethos to my wider life, and try and be that supportive person who helps other people feel happier and more confident. To find ways to “clap like an idiot” whenever a person has the courage to express themselves. And it probably won’t be easy, because we all have a bit of a tendency to be cynical and negative when we’re confronted with the kind of problems we’re all facing these days.

That’s the intention, in any case. I’ve already been angry once today over the latest political bullshit-nightmare, and that anger was almost immediately followed by depression and hopelessness. I’m feeling more and more like I’m not equipped to fight in this great messy ideological war, so I’m instead going to try and equip myself to just make people around me a little happier, if possible.

Because I know that it worked for me. I know that it helped me out right when I needed help. I know that I went into that five-day retreat feeling hurt, and alone, and frightened. And I left it feeling loved, supported, and not afraid of anything.

Except maybe for spiders.