By Justin Edin, Assistant Program Manager, Zealand Apartments

I have always enjoyed theater and the arts as far back as I can remember. Basically, I have been doing informal improvisation my whole life, which some of you may know as “playing pretend.” As a boy, I would pretend anything and everything – from being a successful dad, or imagining myself as a Dragonball Z warrior training for battles and everything in-between. I was blessed with friends and family who encouraged my over-active imagination.

My brother, Joshua, has autism, and the thing that has always kept us close has been playing pretend and doing theater. Joshua would help me memorize my lines and he attended all of my performances. We were the hit of the dinner tables and family gatherings. I remember reenacting a scene from the Lion King eating bugs, while we were, in actuality, eating our Mac & Cheese. We also enjoyed doing physical comedy by acting out the Three Stooges – my brother always loved it when I pretended to get hurt!

Joshua and BrotherUnbeknownst to me, I had been training my whole life in the art of improvisation. When I was a sophomore in high school my mom signed me up for the Madhatter’s Drama Camp in Wadena, MN. At first, it was an awful experience. I thought the games were weird and they made me feel uncomfortable. I was expected to share things about myself that I did not want to share. I had to learn to dance and was asked to sing a solo – but I did not want to sing alone, nor did I want to dance in the spotlight. Each night, I would beg my mom to let me come home, but she was adamant; she had paid for it and told me I just might end up liking it.

Well, she was right … again. On the fourth day of camp we played some real improvisation games and I became hooked. I loved it! People were laughing while I played pretend. I discovered that I was naturally good at it too. I even started to enjoy the dancing and when I sang, I felt free. I had finally found a place where I could just be me and was accepted and praised for being me. I have now been a member of Madhatter’s for the last 10 years and am currently the assistant director. For the past two years, I have also been doing my own camp at Lamplighter’s Lamp Camp and could not be happier than when I’m there in my element.

In college, I performed in an improvisation troupe called “Attention Starved Children.” (How I began doing that is another great story, but one for some other time!) I have also taught in Florida, acted in theater in Australia, and performed with Stevie Ray’s in Chanhassen. Because of my passion for improvisation, I have also done various summer workshops over the years. This has all led up to a new initiative I would like to continue for our Hammer clients.

You see, improvisation has changed my life. It gave me confidence when I had none. Improv gives me energy, hope, and joy that I cannot fully explain. The thrill I feel when I help kids who, like me, may not be the best athletes, the best students, nor the most popular kids feel proud of who they are, humbles me. I feel there is no greater gift I can give or receive. This is why I have brought improvisation to Hammer.

Nathn, Joe and Brad at Improv ClassOn November 13, 2013 I taught my first workshop at Hammer Residences. I must admit I was apprehensive about how the workshop would be received, but I have seen it work with so many people over the years, that I felt it just had to work here. Over 20 clients and some of their staff participated. The result was nothing short of powerful! People now had a venue to learn something new, to explore who they are in a safe and supportive environment. At its deepest level, I believe, improvisation is therapy. While I do not have all the supporting research readily available, it is a project I plan to explore while getting my Master’s degree in Special Education.

The workshop consisted of simple yet deceivingly effective exercises that encourage energy and spontaneity. We also played games that teach focus and teamwork. These “games” mask important work teaching important social skills and building confidence. They also instruct many important aspects that are needed to perform improvisation well. What makes this interesting is not only do the games help people learn how to do improv, they also help people learn how to be better people. How does it work? Because the exercises are fun, silly and easy, people cannot always see the benefit. I, however, noticed the instant growth, the letting go, the relief of forgetting about the day and individual problems. People went from “tired” at the beginning of the workshop to happy by its end. The heartfelt thanks I received nearly brought me to tears.

My goal for these workshops is to give an opportunity to everyone. No one can do everything, but everyone can do improvisation, if even at its most basic level. You see, real life is improvisation. We are faced with constant variables and there is no script. We must be able to adapt and relate on the spot. My hope is to teach these skills to everyone, not just people with disabilities. We all have a voice and we all want to be heard. In a world where we are more connected than ever before, there is also a growing disconnect between our real selves. Society should not tell you how to be; rather, you should decide how to be. I always start every new workshop with one simple line: Treat others the way you would like to be treated.

Group Shot of Improv Class

I hope to give a voice to the voiceless and a choice to those who have few. I would like to build the skills of the individuals, so that they may perform at events and share their gifts. There is no sadder crime than wasted potential, in my opinion. Hammer has given their clients, staff, and me a chance to do something truly magical. I do these workshops because everyone has a voice, a story to share, and a purpose that needs to be released into the world. Improvisation just happens to be one of mine.

Due to the success of Justin’s inititial Improv workshop, Hammer will offer two more sessions this month. Individuals supported by Hammer are encouraged to join the fun on December 5 (TONIGHT!) at 6:30pm at Hammer’s Main Office or December 18. Contact Justin Edin with any question at jedin@hammer.org