There’s two things you need to know about the Anstee family:
- We’re all very nervous.
- We’re artists.
I learned number one early on in life, when I found Mom in the kitchen one morning counting each appliance and repeating the word “Off; off; off; off; off…” That night, I asked Dad what she was doing, and he explained that she had something called O-C-D. He said that it made her worry that bad things would happen. I asked him whether she was right, and he told me not to worry about it.
Later that year, Mom was diagnosed with breast cancer; it was the same one that would later metastasize in her liver and kill her.
Mom and Dad met through a production of The Merry Widow, which he sang in and she directed. He thought she was beautiful; she thought he was a diva. When she died, my dad enrolled my sister and me in a summer camp run through Walnut Street Theater. It was here that I witnessed our lineage’s artistic nature.
At Camp Walnut, I took my first improv class. My favorite games were Word-at-a-Time Expert and Arms. I loved improv at the time, but looking back I probably wasn’t much fun to play with given that I hardly ever stopped talking (some things never change). It was at Camp Walnut where I also acted in my first play. While I continued with improv as a summer hobby, I had found my true salvation in the script.
Fast-forward to freshmen year of college.
I’ve spent the past four years performing in school productions, helping run an amateur theater company, and even directing a show of my own. Here I was at Stanford University, and it was time to shine on the big stage. Except it wasn’t. While I landed some great roles, I found that I didn’t enjoy them as much as I would have in high school. As the year progressed, I found it harder and harder to enjoy rehearsals. I also started experiencing these nasty things called panic attacks.
I don’t know why, but I had this recurring anxiety that my life could end at any minute. In these moments of panic, I stopped functioning. It became so bad that I couldn’t attend certain lectures because I’d inevitably hyperventilate in them. I knew this wasn’t normal, so I started seeing a therapist; it was also at this time that I enrolled in Stanford’s TAPS 103—Beginning Improvisation.
Improv helped with my anxiety. Every week, my therapist would instruct me to “allow these unpleasant feelings to exist.” If I feared fear, that would only make things worse. Meanwhile, my improv instruction (Dan Klein, a sage wizard and absolute role model) taught us to celebrate our surroundings: The funny, the everyday, the accidental, even–especially–the uncomfortable. As the quarter progressed, I got better and better at dealing with situations, both on and off-stage, that made me anxious. I worried less about things not going as planned and began regarding the future with excitement rather than dread. By the last day of class, I hadn’t had a panic attack in over a week.
After TAPS 103, I auditioned for and joined the Stanford Improvisors (SImps), currently the only improv group at Stanford (though that’s soon to change). I stopped auditioning for musicals and plays, deactivated from my fraternity, and took a break from my acapella group so that I could invest as much time into improvising as possible. In the spring of 2016, I got an email from our improv coach saying that BATS had an opening in the office for the summer. And now here I am in the summer of 2017, administrating classes and coaching.
Living an improv-inspired lifestyle has bettered my everyday. The motto of “make your partner look good” has made me a more supportive, affirming friend. The occasionally-overused but always-potent philosophy of “Yes-and” has made me more inclined to take adventures, to recognize opportunities. The practice of celebrating failure has freed me up to worry less and smile more. The advice of “slow down and notice your surroundings” has bled into my everyday life—the trees seem a little greener and the ground slightly more solid.
I get excited about others learning to see the world through this beautiful lens. In particular, I want to bring this mindset to children and young adults through classes and coaching. The thing that’s special about this demographic is that they’re ready and excited to be changed. Unlike adults, who are taught to find and cement their identity, children allow new frameworks to impact their day-to-day. My hope is that improv sticks with them through childhood and college and beyond.
On the performance end, I’m inspired to stretch the limits of improvised drama, to see how close we can get to imitating scripted stage plays, and whether spontaneous theater can (or even should) surpass its scripted counterpart. But that’s an article for a different day.
So yes—Improv helped with my anxiety. But, as noted above, it’s also done so much more.
I teach improv because I believe that it illuminates the lives of everyone it touches.
I perform improv because it offers a space to express the artist that my blood line destined me to be; and because I don’t feel so nervous when I’m up on-stage.