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Healing through improv with some Fantastic Funny Femmes

Photos provided by Alicia Douglas

By Hillary Di Menna

There is a lot of talk around mindfulness in the mental health game. I always wrote it off as an extra chore: meditate, take baths with smelly stuff, eat almonds, and you’re cured! Mindfulness seems like another thing to make me feel guilty after failing doing it right. However, when my best bud told me she and her fellow comedian pals were hosting a day of workshops – including one on mindfulness – I signed up and recruited friends.

Comedy for Women’s Mental Health was comprised of three workshops: Mindful Moving for Anxious Performers, Giggle n’ Bitch, and Improv for Anxiety-Relief. The free workshops, hosted at The Social Capital Theatre, were followed by an improv show, Fantastic Funny Femmes. Proceeds from the show were donated to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH).

“Improv is a really wonderful tool,” says comedian Janet Davidson, one of the women facilitating the workshops, “These workshops are so important when it comes to engaging groups in a larger conversation around mental health. In addition, it connects people with a fun art form, and provides a welcoming environment that otherwise might be daunting.” Candace Meeks, a Toronto-based comedian and producer, was happy to be part of an event where stigma around mental health could be broken down and spoken about openly with a group of likeminded people who she believes brought a certain courage out of each other, “[this was] a space for each of us to share our experiences and engage with one another.” It was also a place, Meeks notes, where everyone involved could learn new and useful coping mechanisms.

In the past Brie Watson, a comedian, improviser and writer, would put on shows at the same time as Bell Let’s Talk. In these shows comedians would perform comedy or storytelling around their own experiences dealing with mental health. Like with Fantastic Funny Femmes, show proceeds would go to CAMH. Watson’s schedule didn’t work to have a show corresponding with Bell Let’s Talk, but the owners of the Social Capital Theatre were still keen to have Watson run a similar event. “So I gathered some pals I know who are both well versed in improv as well as anxiety, and we put together the framework for an all-day workshop and show,” says Watson. Toronto comedian Alicia Douglas has experience running improv workshops with elements of mindfulness from when she worked with a women’s shelter in Winnipeg. Meeks has experience working with inexperienced performers, so she lead the final workshop in order to get people excited and ready for the performance. Watson explains that she is “all to familiar with the healing power of talk. Through her time in improv and studying feminist, political thought Watson saw “[The] importance of talking, particularly among women.” Davidson joined after the event was set up. She unexpectedly would be in town the day of the workshop and approached the organizers asking how she could help. “Janet is a very skilled teacher,” says Meeks. “I’ve taken Janet’s Iron Maiden’s workshop as a very young improviser years ago and it changed my life.”

The plan was to set out to have a good day. Facilitators hoped to pass on what they have learned in their careers and to create a safe space for everyone involved. The workshops were meant to help women connect with their voice while giving participants tools to mitigate their anxiety, using improv fundamentals, in the comfort of a low-pressure environment. “These events give legitimacy to people’s experiences and feelings, a platform for those who are ready to talk” says Meeks.

As a participant with minimal performance experience, I felt very comfortable, and had a lot of fun. I found the experience very cathartic and am happy to hear that the facilitators felt the same way. “It’s more than awareness for me,” says Watson, “I feel like I belong to a community; a fiercely competitive community in which many suffer in silence or worry about reaching out to one another for fear of either showing ‘weakness’, or not appearing to be fully ‘in control’. And I’m not really about that. I feel that we’re all in this together, and that we can achieve more by collaborating and lifting one another up than constantly being in a state of competitiveness; which leads to stress, anxiety, negativity, depression, you name it.  I want to be that meme of the women who keep lifting one another up endlessly.”

The group didn’t know what to expect in terms of attendance or participation, but in the end there was a good turnout. I myself and not a performer but I was able to take what I learned and apply it to my every day life in terms of feeling comfortable, grounded, and confident. “I think the greatest joy for me was watching those who weren’t performers just kill it and make us all buckle over with laughter, just by having the courage to get up and do it,” says Meeks, “I love Brie, Alicia and Janet– all women I’m close with and feel a kinship with so being involved in something like this with them was just a delight!”

There are no immediate plans for another workshop day, however all facilitators are open to the idea. In the meantime Meeks and Watson have spoken about anxiety and performing in Watson’s podcast The Constant Struggle.







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