Rx for the Isolation of Coronavirus Quarantine? A Healthy Dose of Improv and Performance!

My colleague and friend, Cheng Zeng and I were invited to author a guest blog by Dr. Lois Holzman, Director of the East Side Institute. Cheng Zeng is an Applied Improvisation Practitioner, facilitator, speaker, and corporate trainer based in Beijing. He is the founder of China Applied Improvisation Institute. He is dedicated to building a community full of love, trust and compassion. He would love to be the bridge which connects China to the world with Play, Performance and Improvisation. http://mahu-improv@qq.com and https://www.facebook.com/humorousking

Cheng: The Chinese lunar new year of the Mouse should have been a time for family reunions. Unfortunately, a devastating coronavirus has spread all across China, and as I write at 18:15 pm on February 4, 2020 more than 20,520 people are diagnosed with infection, 426 passed away.

A daughter cannot reach for her mother; as she is taken away, she sits outside the ambulance crying. A new mother has to send her one-month old baby to the hospital suffering. Many people isolate themselves or are being isolated at this important and usually joyful festival in China. So many doctors and nurses are fighting to protect their patients, to protect this country day and night.

I started to think about what I could do to help people at this moment, as people are isolated and have lots of burdens and fears. How could I help shift attention from the fear to something fun? Fun is the opposite of the fear. To transform the fear would be a chance for us to learn and grow together. I decided to start an online improv program to engage people from China and from around the world, to have a flow of the people I’ve met from different places join us. I invited my friends, students, and partners to play online, one session after another, and so far more than 300 people have participated in four webinars.

I could not have done this at this scale without help of my friends like Marian, Cathy Salit, Gary Schwartz, Sarah Hubner and many other friends from the Applied Improvisation Network. I am inspired by the ideas and suggestions that were shared by AINers, Even though we might not know each other, their support and compassion really enriches my spirit.

No doubt we will be so weak if we exposed ourselves to the virus, so many online participants haven’t gone outside for quite a long time, but we have seen many beautiful smiling faces through camera! There is no fear while there are smiles and laughter.

We people, unlike a virus, are undefeatable because we have love, we have belief, we have wisdom and connection, and these strengths are continuously made even stronger by these sessions.

We can hardly forget a single moment when being together. When we perform, we empathize with each other. We learn how to play, perform, build interesting characters and scenes together. We create stories and we cannot help but laugh at what we’ve created. I can feel how we touch each other on the screen, breathing and living in a same (virtual) space. We are not isolated!

Marian: I saw the post Cheng shared on the AIN Facebook page asking for some ideas and posted a comment with some suggestions. He quickly invited me to lead a session in English. I felt so honored and immediately said yes!

Cheng asked me to think about play online that could release anxiety. I borrowed a warm-up exercise from Elena Boukouvala, a Greek drama therapist, practitioner of social therapeutics and dear colleague, in which people share their name and a gesture and a sound or word to describe how they are feeling. Then the group mirrors that back all together. People expressed frustration, nervousness, unhappiness, loneliness, boredom, sadness and being constrained. One participant held up a book of improv games and shared that she was teaching her family to play improv games. Commenting on how it felt to be online together, people said they were happy, curious, interested and touched.

We played a mirroring game and laughed together. We played a game called “Hype (Wo)Man” where we asked a participant their favorite thing about themselves and then we had volunteers “blow it up/hype it” as a way to celebrate each other. Rita shared that she likes her honesty and someone responded playfully, “She tells everyone true things, even private things!” Rita shared that she felt encouraged to be proud of her honesty. Then we had volunteers perform a few scenes playing the game “Fortunately/Unfortunately.” Two women created a wonderful scene about taking the chance to go outside wearing face masks, “Fortunately we have face masks.” “Unfortunately, they give me a skin rash.” Back and forth they went, and we saw how a difficult situation can be transformed, as the person who had to say “Fortunately” was always able to share something positive. We talked about our ability to feel something while at the same time deciding how we want to perform.

We ended our session with everyone holding their hands in the shape of a heart and created “our beating hearts” together. It was very intimate and truly heartfelt.

Cheng: I was deeply touched and moved by the participants. They may feel nervous, upset or sorrowful before the meeting, but after they perform, they are laughing, they feel an excitement. Relaxing online transformed what they were feeling one hour ago. A teacher told me she immediately applied what she learned online to her students in an online classroom, sharing, “It works really well!” We can spread fun and happiness faster than the virus!

No one can or should be alone to face such a big challenge and because of the virus we are staying closer to one another. Turning circumstances from unfortunate to fortunate, we need to play and think differently. We find something positive – we can spend more time with our families, we can stay at home instead of being stuck in traffic to go to work! Yay! These improv sessions change our thoughts!

In the year of the Mouse, when the coronavirus is spreading out in the world, people from different cultures and nationalities of this world are spreading empathy, love and trust faster than the virus. We are helping people to shift public attention from fear of the virus and sickness in themselves to more positive energy and emotions, and that is where our hope is.