Laughing Stock: How Improvisational Theater Helps People With HIV/AIDS

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It's called the circus bow: You stand upright, throw your arms out and declare, "Ta-daaaa!" like a ringmaster. But in this case, the people doing it aren't in a circus: They're HIV-positive people participating in an improvisational comedy class offered by the Laughing Stock program, part of San Francisco's Bay Area Theater Sports (BATS). The program offers free improv training specifically for people with HIV, hepatitis C and other chronic illnesses. The circus bow is what the students do when they freeze up on stage and can't think of something to say.

Many people living with HIV/AIDS find themselves not only coping with the physical dangers of the virus and its treatment, but also with the stress and depression that sometimes go hand-in-hand with HIV. Another big problem for some HIVers is isolation, particularly for those who may be too ill to work full time.

Ann Feehan, Laughing Stock's coordinator, says that improv can help people cope with those problems in several ways. "In a life where you might not have a 9 to 5 job as your 'identity,' improv can be a way of finding you have inner resources," Feehan says. In addition, the classes provide a chance to relax and have fun, and the very act of laughing helps relieve stress. Feehan says the classes strive to embody what she calls "the 'spirit' of improv: a sense of humor to mistakes that happen; of compassion towards others; of demonstrating kindness rather than judgmentalism; of letting ego go and letting others shine."

In this way, the skills and experiences gained in improv class can help the people who participate gain self-reliance and self-confidence. Even the circus bow, used when people fail during improv games, can help put people in a different kind of mindset than they may be used to. After all, with improv, it's more about the journey than the destination.

"Success is measured in attempting something, rather than the final product. Everyone loves failure," says Jonathan, who has participated in Laughing Stock since the mid-90s.

Jonathan was diagnosed with HIV in 1989 and witnessed firsthand the devastating toll it took on the people around him. "It wasn't until the mid-90s [that] I finally realized that I'd be around for a while. I wanted to find some laughter after being surrounded by the epidemic," he explains.

He originally heard about Laughing Stock from a flier and decided to give it a try. He enjoyed it so much as a student that he eventually became a coach, and then the program's volunteer coordinator, a position he held for eight years.

There is yet another major, tangible benefit of improv classes for people who take part in them: social interaction. "A great class can be 'sticky,' where no one wants to leave," says Feehan. The classes give participants a safe space to meet others and have fun.

Many participants make friends through the classes, breaking through the social isolation that some people with HIV experience. A few have even met roommates through the program.

"You come away feeling good -- which you can't do by talking to your TV set!" says Jonathan.

Students who sign up for one of Laughing Stock's free improv classes don't need any experience when they start out; in each class, coaches teach new skills and improv games. Many students come back for round after round of classes, for months or even years.

Because of its unique nature as an improv group for people with chronic illnesses, Laughing Stock says it takes steps to respect their students' needs. Confidentiality is highly respected: For instance, although the group holds performances for students who want to show off what they've learned, participants can choose between public shows or those performed in a more closed area, such as an AIDS retreat. The classes are also comfortable, with couches for people who feel tired or unwell and want to sit out for a round.

Although Laughing Stock only operates in the San Francisco area, many U.S. cities have improv theater groups that offer lessons. Feehan encourages people with HIV to look for local classes wherever they are, as she thinks the experience can be a valuable one for anyone who feels isolated or stressed -- or is just looking to shake things up and do something different.

"It's about trying something new, rekindling creativity and imagination, and taking a step outside yourself," Feehan says. "When you put yourself to the test, you are often surprised by how creative and inspired you can be. That kind of positive reinforcement can be looked at as a rise in self-esteem. I prefer to think of it as a first step in taking back your own experience of yourself, instead of seeing yourself through society['s] eyes."

If you're in the San Francisco area and interested in learning more about Laughing Stock, contact Regina at 415.474.6776 or e-mail her. Also check out their Website.