Ypsilanti mental health practice promotes healing through improv

Every other Thursday, a small group of people gathers in a meeting room at the Back Office Studio in downtown Ypsilanti for an unusual type of therapy with the motto "Let yourself play!"
Every other Thursday, a small group of people gathers in a meeting room at the Back Office Studio (BOS) in downtown Ypsilanti for an unusual type of therapy with the motto "Let yourself play!"

Licensed social worker Miriam Kirscht is the founder of Improvisation Heals, a mental health practice that combines improv games and therapy. She's been combining her interest in mental health and theater for decades, and started drop-in improvisation groups at the BOS' co-working space about six months ago. 

Her initial focus was on young adults ages 18 to 30 who are experiencing anxiety or social difficulties. Kirscht landed on the idea of improv for young people dealing with anxiety after noticing that her young adult clients were experiencing high levels of stress and social isolation.

"It's a really difficult world to be a young person these days," Kirscht says. "All of these things are going on and young people are feeling stressed in a way I wasn't at that age."

She says she initially envisioned the drop-in groups as a place where young adults could "get out of yourself, play around with different ways of looking at things, and learn to talk to people face-to-face."

"A lot of young people I talked to literally did not talk to anybody face-to-face," she says. "They're going to school virtually, playing video games. They rarely left the house."
Improvisation Heals founder Miriam Kirscht at Back Office Studio.
However, Kirscht has now expanded the group to include all adults interested in working on anxiety and social anxiety. Kirscht has firsthand experience with the therapeutic power of theater, especially improv. She says taking theater classes and performing in high school and college helped her overcome her own shyness and "provided some escape."

"I originally wanted to be a performer and did take classes in acting and was in plays, but I decided I wanted to do something more meaningful with it to help people and help society," Kirscht says. "Acting is all about you, about the performance and the image. To me, that was a little bit superficial. So I decided to combine it with social work."

When she was younger, Kirscht wrote a play about her family. Several family members attended the performance, and the experience was empowering and healing for her.

"It was from that [that] I got the idea of combining theater and social work," Kirscht says. She brought that combination to an earlier career track working with outpatient substance abuse clients.

"I started trying out some of the things I was learning in my graduate program, like roleplaying with people dealing with substance abuse, and it was really effective," Kirscht says. "We might do a family scene with two people about how you go home after treatment and what you do, or how you deal with your spouse. It was really helpful to them, and I was just amazed."

She adds that studies have shown major neurological changes in people who have tried improv exercises. A documentary film called "Act Social" delves into that topic.

"The brain scans showed that the parts worked better together. There was more calmness, all kinds of changes," she says.
An Improvisation Heals meeting at Back Office Studio.
Originally, Kirscht started the drop-in groups at BOS with no particular topic beyond dealing with anxiety. But after she talked to staff at Unscripted Theater in Nashville, she changed her mind and began to create themes.

"The person I talked to said it helps consolidate the group and also attracts people interested in that theme," Kirscht says. "So now we have themes like getting past shyness or speaking up in front of a group." 

The current theme is social anxiety and gaining confidence.

Kirscht says the drop-in format has pluses and minuses. It's hard to get continuity if the same group doesn't always show up. The benefit is that someone doesn't have to commit to a whole series of groups but can come for just one session.

Kirscht says she's beginning to see the benefits of having a longer time to work with the same group and would like to branch out into more continuous groups that can focus on a theme for a month at a time. 

"I also want to branch out into doing consulting for therapy groups or workplaces," she says. 

So far, the largest group has had three participants, but she says that's not all bad. Kirscht hopes to grow the group to about eight regulars, but probably not more. That's because she's already dealing with people who are nervous around crowds, she says.
Improvisation Heals founder Miriam Kirscht at Back Office Studio.
Kristin Danko, community manager for BOS, says she's enjoyed watching Kirscht "working really hard and the group slowly growing."

"I wish more people knew about it. It's a really cool thing she has there. I'd love to see it grow," Danko says.

While Kirscht loves improv, she has sometimes not enjoyed improv groups that were purely recreational.

"Some of them are just trying to hone their standup act and be funny and clever," she says. 

In contrast, the type of improv she's teaching is about gaining confidence while also supporting others in the group.

"It forces people to respond in the moment without planning it," she says. "Some of the people that come have a tendency to overthink and plan, and this acts against that tendency. It also creates this trust. The idea is that part of the reason they are able to be open in this group is because they trust each other and have each other's back. You're trying to make the other person look good. "

Drop-in Improvisation Heals classes are $25 each or pay-what-you-can. More information can be found at the Improvisation Heals website or Facebook page. Those with questions can also email Kirscht at kirschtm37@gmail.com.

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

All photos by Doug Coombe.
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