Jacqueline Kabat on Comedy Improv and Healing

By on February 12th, 2016 Categories: Community Knowledge

If you’ve ever seen the show Whose Line Is It Anyway? then you’re familiar with comedy improvisation, or improv. Comedy actors make up the plot, dialogue, and characters spontaneously in the moment, without a script.

Comedian Jacqueline Kabat has been immersed in improv, standup, and sketch writing since 1997. She’s taught improv workshops at Omega Institute, Esalen Institute, and the Chopra Center. Today, she runs teambuilding improv workshops at companies, and she teaches improv for individuals, including people who’ve been diagnosed with cancer.

In 1998, Kabat was taking classes at Upright Citizens Brigade, the Manhattan-based sketch comedy group that helped launch the careers of Saturday Night Live alumni Amy Poehler and Horatio Sanz. “When I started in improv, I remember thinking, ‘This is great. It’s writing on your feet,’” she says. In the moment, one actor creates an idea, and the next actor takes that idea and runs with it. “The people connected to improv are open to jumping into the void and taking leaps of faith.” Soon she began teaching comedy improv workshops for groups.

While teaching, Kabat noticed something. “As soon as I got on the other end of the stage, in the audience and watching people, then I understood. I saw the shift in people. They hadn’t played since they were kids. Within seconds they looked different, they were vibrating differently — they were glowing.”

But as Kabat’s career was taking off in New York, her cousin in Nashville was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her cousin had already lost her mother, Kabat’s aunt, to ovarian cancer nearly 20 years earlier.

Kabat’s cousin was spending a lot of time at the Nashville branch of Gilda’s Club, a cancer support organization founded in 1995 in memory of comedian Gilda Radner. Kabat reacted. “I literally walked in to Gilda’s Club in Manhattan and said, ‘How can I get involved?’ So I started teaching workshops there for kids and adults. I also did an improv workshop for women at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. My cousin had been getting some of her radiation and chemo there.

“The rules of comedy improv are also life rules,” Kabat says. Her four main rules are:

  • Say “Yes, and…”
  • Make your partner look good
  • Commit
  • Have fun

“I also encourage people to make BIG choices,” Kabat says.

How can comedy improv help someone going through cancer treatment? “Well to me, improv is an equivalent to what your mission is when you do any type of holistic regimen,” says Kabat. “Like yoga or meditation, improv gives people a place to go so they don’t have to fear the future. It gives them not only a break from their anxiety, it gives them a tool to manage the anxiety as opposed to marinating in it.

“So for example, if I’m feeling anxious, I can do two things. I can say, ‘Oh, I’m anxious,’ or observe myself and say, ‘Oh this is interesting. This is what anxiety feels like.’ You can take that feeling, whether it’s guilt, shame, fear, anxiety — and personify it. I have it looking at me. I put arms and legs on it, it’s a piece of clay, or a person, but it’s anxiety and I’m having a conversation with it. ‘Hi, anxiety. Wow, I’ve learned so much from you. Thank you. Now I’m more compassionate because of it. I don’t really hate you right now; you’re free to go.’ You’re giving it permission to go. And it’s like these feelings, all they’re waiting to get is what they’ve never gotten — love. So when the anxiety kicks in again, it’s all about clearing the intensity.

“If you’re fully present, anxiety just can’t exist,” she says. “So improv gives people a break from anxiety, and the truth is, it’s going to come back up. Even though improv doesn’t obliterate anxiety immediately, it gives you control of your fear — it’s really kind of shaking hands with the anxiety and it doesn’t have to be scary. And with just that in itself, you’re managing your life. You’re taking control. I would imagine the feeling of having been diagnosed is a huge feeling of just losing control. Improv gives you the reins; you get to hold the reins a little tighter. And you might hit a few speed bumps, but at least you’re on the wagon.”

Another aspect to improv is making connections with others. “Connection and community is healing, and that’s what improv allows people to do. And it’s the presence, really, that goes beyond people I have on stage. For example, if I do a workshop, I probably have between two and five people up onstage at a time. I guide them through games like the ones you see on Whose Line Is It Anyway? And it’s one of the only times I don’t see the audience picking up their cell phones. It’s watching people be present; it’s healing. They’re so invested. People are getting up onstage and being funny; everyone’s in the moment. And that goes out into the audience.”

Kabat runs improv workshops with groups and one-on-one, in-person or long-distance by phone or Skype. “A lot of the time, a person I’m working with one-on-one will just start chatting, and many times the stuff that comes out — and this is what is interesting — doesn’t even ultimately have anything to do with cancer. They’re just things that come out that need to be cleared. And it could be forgiveness with a relative or other things they want to push through because they know that they’re not serving anyone’s highest good, especially now when they have to view life a little bit more closely. So if someone’s having an issue with a child, it could be something that the kid’s doing, isn’t visiting enough — let’s say the kid isn’t calling enough, we do an improv conversation where they play themselves and I’ll be the kid. Maybe you want to just shift it so you can look at it, as opposed to marinating in it — and get it out of your body. Being able to observe the angst as opposed to swimming in it.”

For people who want to try improv classes in their own cities, Kabat says, “Choose your teacher mindfully. No one should go to an improv class and leave feeling worse. If they do, they’re not in the right place. If that happens, switch classes and get another teacher. That I know for sure.”

In her workshops, she’s noticed that participants start allowing their creativity to emerge. “All art helps us turn chaos into order, and several people have been more inspired to create what they came into the world to do. A lot of people start painting or drawing or writing more. Really, it can go from taking up art to just physically breathing more deeply — for a lot of people I work with, it just feels like their breath is contracted, so it’s about breathing more fully. And there’s also forgiveness in relationships. What used to take months to forgive, it’s done — you’re over it before breakfast. You’re living in the moment.”

Visit Jacqueline Kabat’s website to learn more.


Claire Nixon, Editorial Director — Claire directs a team of writers, researchers, content managers, and physicians through the creation of high-integrity web content. She brings 20 years of experience in health communications and journalism to the Breastcancer.org team, as well as the lens of the patient – she was treated for breast cancer in 1998 and again in 2012. In her off-time, Claire enjoys creative writing, independent films, meditation, and the ocean.

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