Ring-lights, phones and computer screens: online improv has been an amazing lifeline for some, and a welcome distraction for others, but don’t forget to take some time away from the bright lights and get some green-time (and I don’t just mean green-screens) this festive season.
I have to be honest. While this year’s been terrible for some, I’m afraid I must guiltily mumble, ‘Actually, I think I’ve been OK’.
Sorry. *I really am sorry. It feels wrong when so much in the world is dreadful, but it’s true.
It’s not like I haven’t had my fair share of money worries, and Covid-anxiety, particularly in March as we watched the Arts Industry and live improv opportunities crumble before our eyes. Indeed, I remember going to teach my last improv class in King’s Cross, the night they announced the pubs would close early, and we would be going into lockdown. I sat on a bench in the square as people left early to escape the city. It felt… weird; I felt curiously empty.
So why have I been OK? Two reasons, really. Firstly, financially: whilst I’ve lived on a pittance compared to a year ago, the Arts Council saw fit to give me a grant, the government finally got around to helping out ‘some’ of us self-employeds, and certain people in the improv community put in a huge amount of hard graft to get classes online as soon as possible.
The second reason came out the infamous lockdown exercise allowance. I realised quite early on that I would need a routine to get through that time, and I would need to get out of the house. In England, the suggested ‘reasonable’ 1hr exercise actually gave me a manageable goal. In the same way that being asked to do a scene about anything can make an improviser freeze for an idea, having all the time to exercise can mean you can struggle for motivation. I went walking…
There’s plenty of scientific evidence to suggest that going out into nature has major benefits to your mental health. In fact, the Mind website suggests going: ‘into a green space or bringing nature into your everyday life can: improve your mood, reduce feelings of stress or anger, help you feel more relaxed, improve your physical health, improve confidence and self-esteem, help you make new connections and provide peer support.’ (Read the full Mind article here.)
Even the soil we tread on has something special to offer, for instance, mycobacterium vaccae whose proteins trigger the release of serotonin in the brain. Mud truly is glorious mud.
Luckily for me, in three minutes I can be out of my flat and walking up a dirt track that leads first to allotments overlooking Brighton hospital, and then on to Whitehawk Hill – with its neolithic settlement still standing guard over the 60s housing estate in the valley below. It is a thin strip of land that runs between two areas of the city. It flanks the Horse-Racing track on one side and then heads out – on to the South Downs Way, a national walking trail that stretches from Winchester to Eastbourne. Often full of dog-walkers, it is a strange mixture of urban wasteland and areas of special scientific interest.
From way up there, you can see the Seven Sisters cliffs off to the East and, on a clear day to the West, the faint hump of the Isle of Wight is visible, rising out of the grey sea.
Up there, I’ve discovered there are a surprising number of different flowers that look like a dandelion; I’ve photographed tiny beetles navigating a seed-head, I’ve picked blackberries, wild plums and apples, and I’ve found the huge badger sett through hard-to-reach scrub and prickly bramble. For a while, I managed to walk up the hill every day, photographing the same – but different – view through the lens of ever-changing weather.
When I’m alone, I’m lost in the moment and when I’m with others, or meet dog-walkers on the path, it’s equally joyous. And my photographs and facebook posts of these forages into nature have led to unexpected bonuses: improv friends who want to walk with me, unexpected conversations with strangers, new friendships made.
And you might think, but this is an improv blog, Jen, why are you rambling on (geddit) about the countryside? Well, I’m writing about both, because I don’t think I could have had one without the other. Improv gave me community connection and financial stability – I had money and therefore time to spare – while nature gave me the space to explore and refresh outside of the zoom-box.
But I live in the middle of the city, I hear you cry
Good point. I admit, I’m lucky. But, I believe, if you look hard enough, you can find nature in most places. The great thing about the ‘great outdoors’, is it tends to look unfavourably on concrete; it likes to squeeze its way back into its rightful territory; it likes to plant itself high about the city, it likes to break through pavements; it even enjoys a stint in a neglected crevice of a car windscreen. And I’ve not even started on what flies, what scampers, what lumbers and what creeps around most built-up areas that heave with humans.
I know, for instance, there’s a small family of lizards that sunbathe (on rare sunny occasions) on the wall outside the school opposite my house; I know that there’s a lone confused blackbird that sings all night at the trade park down the road because it thinks it’s permanently daytime, I know that there are at least four different mosses living on my windowsill, and that the magpies across the road are pissing off the fat wood-pigeons who have found their territory recently invaded.
And, if none of that is possible for you, then I’m sorry. That sucks. However, there are still things you can do to experience the benefits of the countryside. Even listening to the sounds of nature can lower your blood pressure and levels of serotonin – the stress hormone which calms the body’s fight-or-flight response.
“In 2017, researchers found that listening to natural sounds caused the listeners’ brain connectivity to reflect an outward-directed focus of attention, a process that occurs during wakeful rest periods like daydreaming….Even looking at pictures of nature settings, your favourite spot, or a place you want to visit can help.” (Read the full article here.)
Improv can’t exist in a vacuum. It needs lived experiences to digest and reflect upon, it needs specifics for the imagination to play with, and your brain needs a holiday once in a while. The natural world is where I choose to vacation and, whenever I feel tired, or anxious about a class I’m teaching, or worried about a piece of work, I know it’s time to get my boots on and get outside.
I leave you with one suggestion, if you fancy trying it. Wherever you live, find a piece of nature – the nearest to you – a piece of grass, a spider, whatever. Then hang out with it for a while.
At least until the next improv class.