As I was researching my Improv Community Heroes blog series, I was put into contact with Katharine Steer who runs Wellprov in Brighton — an improvisation workshop with a difference. The story was so inspirational that I couldn’t wait to interview Katharine so we could share it more widely.
Rachel: Who is Wellprov for?
Katharine: My friend Kate, who I met five years ago on our beginners improv class. Kate has been housebound and incapacitated for the last three years by a condition that means she cannot use her eyes very easily without severe nausea and vertigo. This means it’s difficult to read, look at screens, watch people’s faces, move or walk places or be outside. Even the movement of fork to mouth when eating can be tricky.
Rachel: What do you do?
Katharine: Two to three of us each week go to Kate’s to play improv with her for an hour. Kate has to sit down out of sight so she can’t see us and we sit in her tiny hall outside the room. It’s like doing improv on the radio and it’s surprising how quickly this seems completely normal.
Rachel: Who participates?
Katharine: Members of the Brighton improv community. I put the call-out for volunteers on our local improv Facebook page and had an initial response. As the months have passed word of mouth has added others to our rota.
Rachel: What kind of improv do you do at Wellprov?
Katharine: We started with simple non-physical warm-ups going into shortform games. I chose games that didn’t require physical movement. As we got more confident we started doing Henry’s and also focusing on a particular theme, for example a week of character work. We also learned to start the sessions with a personal check-in, which means everyone gets a minute or two to say where they are at. This means the focus isn’t just on Kate as the one with life issues going on, but on all of us as equal participants.
Rachel: How has Wellprov expanded over time?
Katharine: We have also performed an improv musical for Kate on her birthday as she can’t get out to any gigs so we brought a gig to her. Birthdays can be hard when you’re long-term ill. The day can stretch out long and silent.
Recently, a group of us have been recording Katy Schutte’s book The Improviser’s Way (with Katy’s permission) so that Kate can listen to it and use it to develop her improv skills both by herself and in discussions with us inspired by the book.
Rachel: What are the rules for people participating in Wellprov?
Katharine: I set ground rules for everyone when we started:
- No one is allowed to talk about Kate’s illness (but they are free to ask me any questions they like outside of the session). This is so Kate can focus on fun. When you live with long-term chronic ill health, it is hard to escape it so we ringfenced this time.
- Everyone is asked not to offer alternative medicine suggestions. People mean well but it’s exhausting having to be appreciative of random suggestions when you’ve already spent years researching solutions yourself and you’re dealing with a complex health condition for which there are no simple answers.
Rachel: What have you learned about improv from doing Wellprov?
Katharine: That you can do improv anywhere, including lying down! And how taking out the physical acting allows you to focus on other skills.
Rachel: What do you enjoy about Wellprov?
Katharine: I personally experienced the devastating isolation of long-term illness when I was younger so it gives me great joy knowing the difference just an hour to look forward to every week can make. It’s brilliant seeing Kate have fun in very difficult circumstances. And best of all, I have seen her improv confidence grow. She will now plan and run some of the sessions, which doubles the value as this gives her something else structured to do, and she does a superb job.
We all have great fun during our time with Kate. I have seen newbies surprised on every occasion about what a fun and lighthearted time we have. Another great pleasure is seeing the spin-off of some of our participants developing independent friendships and visiting Kate outside of our sessions.
Rachel: What are the benefits of improv for people in difficult situations?
Katharine: It helps keep individuals connected to people at a time of isolation. It can bring normality into a life that has lost the usual markers of time and simple achievements. It’s a chance to laugh and be distracted. When you are long-term isolated, you live with a lot of silence and improv is a great excuse to get together.
Improv provides a great channel for expressing other facets of your personality, particularly when being isolated means not much opportunity just to be ridiculous. It can expand your sense of self, connecting to who you are beyond illness. Also knowing you have this regular fun time week-in-week-out to explore these other facets helps mental and physical wellbeing. Acres of empty time stretching ahead of you can be hard to be constantly resilient about.
I know Kate feels this is a chance to truly feel like herself. Being silly and having fun is so much a part of who she is and she was losing that with the isolation. And that hour of fun and silliness carries her through the week. Her social circle is expanding rather than contracting now. The pre- and post-improv chat is just as important too: it’s that chance to be with like-minded people and just chill.
Rachel: And how does Wellprov benefit the improvisers who volunteer?
Katharine: There is great benefit to us in the improv community in contributing to making someone else’s life palpably better with the thing we love doing. When someone is dealing with a tremendously difficult situation, we so rarely can do anything helpful, but Wellprov gives us a chance to do something positive to help and everyone who participates loves having that opportunity. Some of our participants actually prefer the relaxed and non-pressured hour of Wellprov. For them it feels safe and non-demanding.
It’s also been a great way to spread the message of the realities of long-term illness and expand awareness that I hope has knock-on effects on the lives of others I will never learn of.
Rachel: How do you organise Wellprov?
Katharine: I have a colour-coded spreadsheet (any excuse) to coordinate people’s availability two months ahead at a time. But of course, life being what it is, I have last-minute drop-outs so I have to juggle all the time. But it’s really important to me that no one ever feels bad for having to change their commitment. Many of our participants are self-employed and we need to earn a living.
We have enough volunteers so no one does more than one or two sessions a month. I think that is what contributes to being able to keep this going: no one is overstretched timewise. The first six months I was there every week, but now Kate is able to run sessions herself, which means I don’t need to be. Also I needed to be there so Kate didn’t have the strain of having to ‘host’ with people she didn’t know well or at all. But now I only ensure I am there when we have a new member so I can facilitate their introduction to it all.
Rachel: You’ve run Wellprov for a year now. That’s a great achievement!
Katharine: Any effort required on my part is totally worth it and I am very grateful for the chance to do this. It’s a tiny drop in the ocean but it’s making a difference. Small kindnesses are world-changing.
Rachel: Can you think of any other situations where Wellprov would be valuable?
Katharine: With Wellprov, Kate had already experienced improv and longed to do more. The improv community worldwide is large so it is going to experience members who are unable to leave the house for whatever reason. If your friends can’t get out to improv, it’s such a simple solution to take it to them. But do remember to take the strain of ‘hosting’ away from them.