Using improvisation techniques to help those affected by homelessness – VCU News



“Applied Improv to Impact Homelessness” literally sounds like an improvised sketch in a comedy club.

But there is nothing funny about this very real research project that examines the use of improvisation techniques to reduce homelessness.

To understand the premise, it is important to first understand that improvisation is more than the comedic form of entertainment that you might find in programs such as “Whose Line is it Anyway?”

“All improvisation is about listening, connecting and responding without a script,” said Elizabeth Byland, head of improv at the VCU School of the Arts Department of Theater and director of applied health improvisation with the Center for Interprofessional Education and Collaborative Care.

“Really, improvisation is the language of humanity,” said Byland. “It’s based on empathy. It doesn’t require a big fancy budget. It doesn’t even require anything, honestly, other than for other humans to come together and accept that they’re going to be in space with other humans.

The “Applied Improv” project is funded by a $ 25,000 grant from the Association of American Medical Colleges to strengthen self-advocacy and problem-solving skills in those affected by homelessness, and reduce stigma homelessness among health professionals. Byland and Alan Dow, MD, Acting Division Chief of Hospital Medicine and Assistant Vice President of Health Sciences for Interprofessional Education and Collaborative Care, are leading the project.

“Improvisation, like the other performing arts, helps us look at our world in a different way,” said Dow. “In this project, the spontaneous and surprising nature of the improvisation creates bonds between the participants and gives us a better idea of ​​the challenges of the transition to homelessness. Even though sometimes the sessions can get silly, I always walk away after feeling something deep.

Despite many efforts to reduce or eliminate health care disparities, Byland said, the fact is that they persist as health care gaps continue to widen. “This improvisation program is our way of providing one more solution to minimize the healthcare gap we face in our own community. … Sometimes just being present with the other is the most important care of all.

“And that’s why empathy training is so important. You see, empathy isn’t about fixing someone’s problems. Empathy is sitting still with another. It’s about sitting right now with someone, for someone, because of someone. … This is what leads to being seen, heard, noticed. This is perhaps the most important item of all for someone in need of care. It may not be a prescription that this person needs, but it may be to listen to their full story and understanding.

Several groups are participating in the project. The first is Liberation Veteran Services, which provides transitional housing for veterans, many of whom are returning to civilian life and facing challenges such as post-traumatic stress disorder. Byland works directly with veterans once a week, teaching them skills that help them connect and bond with other veterans.

“It’s a wonderful space where they use improvisation skills to practice self-expression and even find moments of laughter with each other, and learn to focus on how to handle those moments with emotional intelligence. “said Byland. “And instead of times of fear and panic, they learn to react emotionally, confidently, and even find the positive and the unknown rather than reacting out of fear.”

At Caritas Workforce Development Program, an employment preparation and life skills development initiative, Byland and her healthcare students will work with teachers in the program to develop their skills in improvisation, helping them to apply them in their program. “It’s an indirect way of working with Caritas clients,” said Byland, who will also train management and administration.

The pandemic and the shutdown has proven to be a double-edged sword for Byland. It is difficult to be empathetic and humanistic while socially distancing yourself, and she was only able to organize a few in-person sessions with participants from Liberation Veteran Services. However, she was also able to organize online refresher sessions with community providers, social workers and her team of healthcare students. Plus, the extra time allowed him to figure out what his schedule will look like once they move on to the in-person sessions.

“The planning has been going on for a very long time,” said Byland. “If it hadn’t been for COVID, we could have moved forward probably a little faster. But also, it allowed me to be very intentional in my planning, with exactly which exercises are going to work.

Each round of improvisation sessions will last eight weeks, and Byland plans to capture the data from the first official round by the winter of 2022. This is so important to a healthcare student’s training, and also why it matters to those who need it most in our community.

Byland’s mission, she said, is to prove that improvisation is more than a comedy tactic.

“The long term goal is to maintain this situation,” she said. “I don’t want to stop here. I want to go to correctional facilities, rehabilitation programs, counseling services. Anyone could benefit from just practicing these basic concepts of communication. I don’t even need a computer to do it. I don’t need anything other than other organizations willing to learn and participate freely.


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