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Healing With Improv: An Essay by Denise Bessette

Mural created by the participants of the Northwell Health Phelps Hospital Continuing Day Treatment Program (photo courtesy of Phelps Hospital)

I’ve been a Teaching Artist with ArtsWestchester for many years. Originally, a neighbor who was running the Phelps Hospital Continuing Day Treatment Program in Ossining asked me to consider teaching an acting workshop for adults with mental illness. At first, I was hesitant; then my curiosity got the better of me. I hoped to test what I know as a producer, actress and teacher. My disclaimer here is that I am not a trained Drama Therapist, nor do I work on that level with these individuals. What I want to share is the deep gratification that comes from witnessing the courage it takes for mental health recipients to risk being open, creative, honest and willing to learn new tools of communication – and how powerful the arts can be in this environment.

We gather in a small group, usually about six or seven members. Our work includes physical and vocal warm-ups like stretches and alignment and practicing clarity of speech, as well as improv exercises, which they excel in. Then we move to monologues, scenes between two or three members, and writing prompts and exercises. Most of all, I keep it simple, fun, accessible and we play in a safe environment. I’ve developed an eclectic approach that continues to evolve and have since gone on to work with St. Vincent’s Hospital and Pathways in Greenwich, CT, which is a residency program, as opposed to a day treatment center.

There are many times when I recognize the ironic and delicate line of stability that I tread in this world, and experience a bit of “imposter syndrome.” Certainly the past year and a half has challenged all of us. I appreciate what these people have been through in their lives – I never know their diagnoses, nor should I. Yet they are able and willing to show up, whether virtually, as we did for 14 weeks last year, or in person as we have recently done. 

They open their hearts and their considerably imaginative minds. Time and time again, I hear myself say “You knock me out!” Most recently, the original writing they offered us as a group was so profoundly moving, I was left speechless – and that’s saying a lot. One of the things that took my breath away, as they each stepped up to interact with each other in an improv exercise, was how readily they took on characters that they created on the spot. In one case, a man was being interviewed because he’d become an unintentional hero after saving a young boy from a burning building he was passing.

The truth is, I learn from them. They teach me about the basic goodness of the human heart and its ability to survive in the face of unimaginable trauma. Most of all, I’m touched by the humor we all allow ourselves to feel in the midst of life’s uncertainty. What a gift this has been for me.

A version of this article first appeared in the October issue of ArtsNews, ArtsWestchester’s monthly publication. ArtsNews is distributed throughout Westchester County. A digital copy is also available at artsw.org/artsnews.​​