Improv Comedy for the Young at Heart

Teri McEvoy has just been told she is better than a furry Prozac, and she couldn’t be happier. The veteran Chicago actor stands in the middle of a circle of silver-haired improv students still laughing over a shared joke and telling her what they’ve learned in the last hour.

By “furry Prozac,” class member Cynthia Wilcox refers not to the latest antidepressant or trendy sensory therapy, but to the mood-raising effect of McEvoy’s interactive improv classes, which she says make her even happier than seeing a friendly, tail-wagging dog.

“One thing I like about this class is that no one is judging anyone,” adds Anne Schultz, who has attended McEvoy’s workshops at The Breakers retirement home in Chicago for years. “That comes from you as a teacher.”

Many of McEvoy’s students share that feeling. “The laughing here is non-stop,” says Kenn Piotrowski, who lives at Friendship Village in Schaumburg, after a recent class. “Tonight I’ll be telling all my friends about what we did today. Teri removes our inhibitions so that we just have fun.”

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“You will hear laughter roaring from this room,” agrees Jeannette Magdaleno, a coordinator at Friendship Village. “There’s nothing else like this out there that I’ve heard about. People didn’t understand what the class was about at first, but then it spread word-of-mouth. Now if a class is canceled I hear about it.”

“Improve-isation,” as McEvoy calls her workshops, combines memory and word games, story-telling, and improvised scenarios that challenge people to think on their feet. “The seniors I work with are so creative and quick. They’re funny, and they like to have fun,” McEvoy says.

A Second City-trained comedian and actor, McEvoy made her living for over 20 years in voiceover and commercial work, as well as in TV shows and films. She came up with the idea of senior improv after using word games to cheer up her own mother during an illness several years ago. McEvoy adapted some of her favorite improv exercises to a senior audience, and pitched the idea to senior communities near her home in Evanston. She now teaches at more than a dozen centers across the North Shore, Chicago and western suburbs.

McEvoy begins each class with an exercise, such as a tongue twister (“epitome of femininity” and “Greek grapes” are some favorites) designed to loosen tongues and get creative juices flowing. She then moves onto longer scenarios, making sure everyone stays involved and talking, cracking jokes as she walks around the room.

For example, she divided the class at Friendship Village into small groups and told them they would teach a class on a topic of their choosing. “I’m starting a school and it’s called Friendship University. But we won’t use the initials for this one.”

The class was quiet for a second as the joke sank in, then they all burst out laughing.

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McEvoy went on. “So what I want you to do is have fun with this. I had someone this week say, ‘I don’t know anything about this subject.’ I know—that’s what makes it better. That’s when the improv comes into play. That’s when you’re using your creativity.”

Karl Rosengren, a developmental psychologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says that current research confirms the effectiveness of McEvoy’s approach. “[Teri] is doing a number of things that are really good. Her classes involve working in a social group, and one of the advantages of that is it keeps people engaged. Many interventions with older adults fail because of a lack of a social component.”

In addition to social and emotional boosts, Rosengren says, McEvoy’s classes offer cognitive benefits. “You want to be doing things that require flexibility in your thinking and that make you do novel things. Improv taps into behaviors that seem to promote cognitive function in older adults. It gets them to use their minds in flexible ways. What you don’t want to do is the same old, same old. That’s why learning a second language or a new instrument is better than playing Sudoku over and over.”

Regardless of the myriad benefits, McEvoy’s students simply enjoy the chance to let loose, share jokes, be listened to and appreciate the absurdity of the human condition, no matter what their age. “Nobody tries to be funny here,” Schultz says. “It’s funny just to be human.”