A new virtual course from Stomping Ground Comedy Theater offers healing, laughter, and community
by Cristee Cook
The first time I visited Stomping Ground Comedy Theater, one of the first things I noticed was the company’s transparent and passionate dedication to diversity and service. More than just a comedy troupe, Stomping Ground has a mission dedicated to offering the therapeutic benefits of improv comedy to the community, and that outreach is radically inclusive. With classes like Improv for Anxiety, classes for those on the Autism spectrum, and even improv classes for Alzheimer’s patients and their caregivers, Stomping Ground’s contribution to the healing and uplifting of society has a broad reach.
When the city mandated the closing of businesses as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the company chose to continue with online offerings. While many local theatre companies have chosen to offer online performances (and Stomping Ground plans to do so in the future), their initial response was a rapid pivot, and they managed to maintain the core goals of their mission. Their new class, The Social Connection, is a combination of improv comedy’s goofy fun and the therapeutic benefits that the technique offers. The Social Connection is part class, part safe space, and an opportunity to make the best out of an unprecedented time with like-minded people. I spoke with Stomping Ground Co-Founder Andrea Baum about the details of the class, why improv is therapeutic, and what makes this particular online experience different from other virtual entertainment offerings.
Can you tell me about The Social Connection? After everything happened, we quickly decided to start doing online programming. And one of the things that we saw was that when our classes were moving online, people just really wanted to talk about what was going on. People were reaching out to me, saying that their anxiety was through the roof. They were getting depressed, and people were asking me for coping skills. So, we decided to create The Social Connection to help people get support from one another. We teach coping skills within the class and then we do some improv. We do “shake offs,” where we physically move anxiety out of our body with laughter. We get silly together.
Can you share more about your background and the special classes you offer?
I'm a psychotherapist. [Stomping Ground Co-Founder] Lindsay Goldapp and I connected a few years ago, and she was telling me that she was interested in starting a nonprofit comedy theater. I was interested in starting improv for therapeutic benefits. I was specifically interested in caregivers for people with Alzheimer's at that time. And then that grew into improv for anxiety, Autism, and special needs. So now we're looking into improv for healthcare professionals and physicians. We’ve been creating these programs for about three years now. We’ve partnered with over 30 organizations in Dallas and Nationwide. We present at conferences and do different types of workshops, and we’re able to customize them for whatever people's needs are. The organic, natural benefits of improv are very similar to therapeutic benefits that people are doing in one-on-one talk therapy. When I was taking improv classes for fun, I was in private practice and I realized that the process of learning improv is getting people to do what I'm trying to get my patients to do in sessions.
The learning process of improv is in itself therapeutic. You’re expressing yourself in all sorts of different ways. You’re expressing a lot of different types of emotion. It's an extremely supportive environment. It’s this positive, unconditional regard where people are fully accepted. All of your ideas are accepted. All of your feelings are accepted, and you’re able to be more authentic when you feel so supported. People with anxiety often feel self-conscious. They don't want to show parts of themselves because they feel judged. So, this is an environment where people can really be themselves, or they start to learn that they can be themselves. And that increases confidence and self-esteem because they're taking risks; and they're able to be more comfortable in who they are and really get to exercise who they are in a safe environment.
As a response to COVID-19, many theatre companies are offering their audiences entertainment in the form of recorded performances. This is a wonderful response and serves the audience, but a recorded performance doesn’t offer the same feedback loop that live performance offers. Do you think that a class like The Social Connection is different? Does it offer that feedback loop of audience and performer, or does it offer the feeling of common experience like we receive when we attend live theatre?
Well, the class becomes its own audience. We give people an opportunity to be performing for one another within this group. So, you get to perform for the small audience that you’ve just connected with. It feels really safe. We’re all laughing together at what people are creating on the spot. What we were thinking - there's so many things online already for people to watch for entertainment. I mean, it's almost like you have to compete with Netflix, you know what I mean? So, this is a way for people to be able to connect and laugh together, but on another platform. I think we were able to do it quickly because we do work with a lot of different types of unique populations. We work with all abilities. So, we already had to adapt so much of the way that we do things. All of those adaptations can be applied to a virtual world as well. I think it's really important that people are face to face and seeing one another.
Has there been a special moment in The Social Connection that confirmed why you do the work you do?
There was a moment where we had asked people what their favorite thing was about being quarantined and then what brought up the most stress and anxiety. And someone had started to talk about how their job had changed so much and there was so much uncertainty with how they were going to cover their expenses and how everything was changing so quickly. And that person was brought to tears. We were able to, in the moment, come together. We did a mindful breathing exercise, and that helped her tremendously. Then about five minutes later we were playing improv games and she was just laughing and laughing and laughing. And that's all you can do in this moment because we can't talk ourselves into logically saying everything's going to be okay because we truly don't know what is going to happen right now. The only thing that we can do is change how our brain is experiencing the world - which is fight or flight right now. So, if we can help people have gratitude and be mindful and laugh, we can actually get them out of that fight or flight response. And in that space, we have more compassion for ourselves and others. The beautiful thing about that moment is that we gave the experience of, look, you can be really stressed out and have a lot of anxiety and be emotional, but you are so resilient and you are able to see yourself on the other side of that in just a few minutes. So, for us to give that experience to people – to help them see they're capable and they are resilient – yeah, that’s why we do this.
The Social Connection is offered Monday through Friday evenings at 9 pm CST on a pay-what-you-can basis. This class is open to adults over 18 years and does not require any previous improv training. Drop in for one evening or join nightly. Each class is unique and is taught by a therapist and comedian. To register for The Social Connection, or another of the many virtual classes being offered, visit them at https://stompinggroundcomedy.org/classes.
Like many of the local performance companies in Dallas, Stomping Ground Comedy Theater has been affected by the closures due to COVID-19. If you would like to make a tax-deductible contribution to their fundraiser, please visit their fundraising page.