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Using improv techniques to help individuals affected by homelessness

A VCU project aims to strengthen self-advocacy and problem-solving skills, and reduce the stigma of homelessness among health care practitioners.

By Leila Ugincius, VCU News

“Applied Improv to Impact Homelessness” literally sounds like an impromptu skit at a comedy club.

But there’s nothing funny about this very real research project that looks at the use of improvisational techniques to decrease homelessness.

To understand the premise, it’s important to first understand that improv is more than the comedic form of entertainment you might find on programs such as “Whose Line is it Anyway?” 

“All improv is, is listening, connecting and responding without a script,” said Elizabeth Byland, head of improv with the VCU School of the Arts Department of Theatre and director of applied health improv with the Center for Interprofessional Education and Collaborative Care.

“Really, improv is the language for humanity,” Byland said. “It is based in empathy. It doesn’t require a big fancy budget. It doesn’t even require anything, honestly, other than other humans just coming together and accepting that they’re going to be in a space with other humans.” 

The “Applied Improv” project is funded with a $25,000 grant from the Association of American Medical Colleges to strengthen self-advocacy and problem-solving skills among individuals affected by homelessness, and reduce the stigma of homelessness among health care practitioners. Byland and Alan Dow, M.D., interim division chief of hospital medicine and assistant vice president of health sciences for interprofessional education and collaborative care, are heading the project.

“Improv, like other performing arts, helps us look at our world in a different way,” Dow said. “In this project, improv’s spontaneous and surprising nature creates connections among participants and gives us a better sense of the challenges of transitioning through homelessness. While sometime the sessions can get silly, I always walk away from them having felt something profound.” 

Despite the many efforts made to reduce or eliminate health care disparities, Byland said, the fact is they still remain as gaps in health care continue to increase. “This improv program is our way of providing one more solution to minimize the health care gap that we face in our own community. … Sometimes just being present with another is the most important care of all.

“And that’s why empathy training is so important. You see, empathy is not about fixing someone’s problems. Empathy is about sitting in stillness with another. It’s about sitting in this moment with someone, for someone, because of someone. … That is what leads to being seen, being heard, being noticed. That might be the most important piece of all for somebody that is in need of care. Perhaps it’s not a prescription that this person needs, but perhaps it’s listening to their whole story and understanding.”

Several groups are participating in the project. First is Liberation Veteran Services, which provides transitional housing for veterans, many of whom are transitioning back into civilian life and facing challenges such as post-traumatic stress disorder. Byland works directly with the veterans once a week, teaching skills that help them connect and bond with other veterans. 

“It’s a wonderful space where they are using the skills of improv to practice self-expression and even finding moments of laughter with each other, and learning how to focus on how to handle moments with emotional intelligence,” Byland said. “And instead of moments of fear and panic right there, they’re learning how to respond with emotional intelligence, with confidence, and finding even the positive and the unknown as opposed to reacting out of fear.” 

At the Caritas workforce development program, a job readiness and life skills development initiative, Byland and her health care students will work with the program’s teachers to develop their improv skills, helping them apply it into their programming. “It’s an indirect way of working with the Caritas clients,” said Byland, who will also train the management and administration. 

The pandemic and shutdown proved to be a double-edged sword for Byland. It’s hard to be empathetic and humanistic while social distancing and she’s only been able to hold a couple of in-person sessions with participants at Liberation Veteran Services. However, she also has been able to hold online developmental sessions with community providers, social workers and her team of health care students. Plus, the extra time has allowed her to lock in what her curriculum will look like once they move to in-person sessions.

“The planning has been happening for a really long time,” Byland said. “If it wasn’t for COVID, we would have been able to move probably quite a bit faster. But also, it’s allowed me to be very intentional with my planning, with exactly what exercises are going to work.”

Each round of improv sessions will last eight weeks, and Byland plans to have data from the first official round captured by winter 2022. “We want to capture good, qualitative data now to put behind improv and why it’s important, why it’s needed, why it’s so important for the training of a health care student, and then also why it is important for those that need it most in our community.”

Byland is on a mission, she said, to prove that improv is so much more than a comedy tactic. 

“The long-term goal is to keep this going,” she said. “I don’t want to just stop here. I want to go into correctional facilities, rehabilitation programs, counseling services. Everybody could benefit from just practicing these core concepts of communication. I don’t even need a computer to do it. I don’t need anything other than just other bodies that are willing to learn and participate freely.”

Lead Image: Elizabeth Byland, back center, is conducting research into how improv can help address homelessness. (Photo courtesy of VCU School of the Arts)