01/19/2012 12:20 EST | Updated 03/20/2012 05:12 EDT

Learning from the laughter: Youth use improv to boost confidence, communication

TORONTO - Brendan McGowan, like most university students, spends his days juggling essays with impending exams while trying to make it to class on time. But once a week the 22-year-old psychology major sets aside the stress of higher education to take up a persona other than his own.

He's one of a growing number of youth who are embracing improvisational theatre, or improv as it’s better known. Aside from the laughs it provides, those who engage in the performances acted entirely without a script say they’re boosting their confidence, learning how to communicate better and tapping into a whole new community of friends, all while having a good time.

"I’ll honestly say that if I did not have improv, I would be the most stressed out person that I would have ever met," says McGowan, president of Ryerson University’s Barrel of Monkeys Improv team.

"It’s just two hours of laughing, having a good time, and you feel refreshed afterwards … I don’t know where the stress went but it’s gone and I’m happy."

Improv, perhaps best known through the hit show "Whose Line Is It Anyway," isn’t just for theatre or arts majors. Increasingly, student from a variety of backgrounds, from journalism to engineering, try their hand at cracking up a crowd without the safety of a script.

"Just about everyone on the improv team is from a different part of Ryerson, all different programs," says McGowan, who has seen interest in his club jump over the past year.

John Piekoszewski, who helps run the Carleton Improv Association in Ottawa, has see a similar boost in numbers recently.

"When I first started out we had eight to 10 people on the team,” says the film studies student. "The past year, we’ve started doing shows in bars around town. We had 30 people show up at tryouts this year, which was unprecedented."

The Carleton team has a core group of 12 who perform at shows but encourages anyone, no matter what their level of experience, to come to weekly practice sessions.

"It’s a great escape. You go away for two hours just to have a laugh, not take anything seriously," says Piekoszewski.

"It’s just about losing your inhibitions, relaxing and letting your mind be free."

In addition to honing their comedic timing, those who indulge in improv are also made to confront their fears of public speaking, and typically boost their confidence levels in the process.

"I myself was very, very shy when I first started improv," says Piekoszewski. "I find that now I’m a lot more willing to just go up to people and talk to them."

Laura Thornton knows what it means to have improv skills affect her life off stage.

The 24-year-old first experimented with improv in high school and now teaches the technique to students in Halifax.

"It changed my life, it gave me direction, it gave me purpose," says Thornton, who also works as a housing support worker in the city.

"This is something that really meant a lot to me when I was their ages, let's see if I can get them into it and hopefully they’ll get the same benefits out of it that I did."

Thornton dispels the notion that improv is reserved for people with quick wit and a sharp tongue.

"Everything we do is made up," she says. "If you can have a conversation you can do improv."

Every activity has its challenges, though, and with improv a hurdle performers need to get over is realizing they aren’t always going to be the star of the show, says Thornton, who has also been a judge at the Canadian Improv Games — an annual competition for high school students.

"It’s about finding that perfect balance of team-building and trust," she says. "Communication is a really, really strong side effect of doing improv."

Candace Meeks can relate. The 23-year-old who regularly performs and coaches improv with the Impatient Theatre Company in Toronto says the art form has really taught her how to listen.

"It’s taught me so much more about listening to what the other person is saying and really hearing them so you can respond in turn, rather than just thinking about yourself," she says.

"It teaches you to not only be supportive on stage, it teaches you to be supportive in life."

For Meeks, improv isn't just a weekly activity, but an outlet for creative expression.

"Before I started doing improv I really felt like people didn’t get me," she says. "With improv it was just such an awakening, that I can just be myself. I can just be enthusiastic all the time, be silly all the time, I can make up whatever character I want to be and everyone is going to think that's great."