TORONTO — A decade ago, Cameron Algie couldn’t imagine getting up on a stage in front of an audience, let alone performing improv comedy for one.
Gripped by anxiety, he scoffed when his therapist suggested he was naturally funny and might do well in an improv class at Second City Toronto.
"It seemed like the scariest thing to do,’" recalls the Cambridge, Ont., native.
"Getting through the door that first day, the first class, is the scariest thing. Anxiety is all about anticipation and imagining all these scary things, but once I was there in the class, it really was scary but fun."
Algie went on to complete all five stages of the improv classes there and then studied at the conservatory level.
Now he teaches Improv for Anxiety or Public Speaking at the Second City Training Centre in Toronto.
"I think play is the key, No. 1 part of it so it doesn’t feel like therapy or work," he says.
"Getting them playing — and then tackle issues like being in the moment and get in touch with your body, connect with other people, make mistakes, allow yourself to not be perfect and be OK with not being perfect."
Group work and building social skills are also a focus of the centre’s new class, Improv for Teens on the Autism Spectrum, which begins Jan. 9.
Instructor Cassie Moes, who pitched the idea for the class, learned how to work with people with special needs as a midde-school teacher. She also had experience teaching improv exercises for people with special needs and did respite care at Reach Child and Youth Development Society in Delta, B.C.
"I find a lot of the times … as kids get older — kids who are on the spectrum — there’s not a lot of programming and resources that’s of good quality for them to explore different things," says the Vancouver native.
"So I really wanted to offer a program where not only will they get the social element that improv really provides but they would also just get to learn some skills which they can apply in their day-to-day life."
Algie says the biggest obstacle for students in the anxiety class is self-judgment.
"When you stand in front of an audience, the audience is never judging you as harshly as you’re judging you," says Algie.
"If you make a little mistake onstage, the audience probably doesn’t notice or care or think of it as a mistake. They probably laughed, found it funny."
Moes, who has also taught the class, says they tell students not to try to be funny.
"I always try to say, who you are and what you have and what you bring inherently is enough," she says.
"You are protected by the framework of the game. The more you let yourself go, those are the people who have the most success, the people with no filter."
Algie and Moes say some anxiety alumni have gone on to perform in front of hundreds and even formed their own troupes.
"For a lot of people, public speaking is worse than death," says Moes.
"So they’re like, ‘If I can stand on this stage and perform in front of 200 people, what else can’t I do in my life?’"
The Improv for Teens on the Spectrum classes are for "high-functioning independent teens" ages 13 to 19.
Moes says she plans to do group exercises to help students feel safe, pick up on emotional cues and "go outside of themselves."
"Also just to have fun and have a regular space, where it’s just like, ‘Hey, there are all these people on the same page as me, let’s just be friends and have fun with each other in this environment that’s less schooled and less worried about fixing what’s wrong with you.’"