Healty Living: Staving Off Alzheimer’s Through Improvisation

By Mary Barrett
Tuesday August 14, 2007

I think I’ve discovered an effective way to stave off Alzheimer’s. Tacked on to the tasks of solving New York Times crossword puzzles, learning ballroom dancing, and attending repeated sessions of Conversational Spanish, I’ve begun attending an improvisation class at Berkeley Repertory’s School of Theatre. 

Seventeen of us showed up for a three-hour stint, Monday night, in a practice space adjacent to the theater on Addison Street. We were greeted by an enthusiastic teacher, Rebecca Stockley, and put through a series of “ice breaker” activities. Her direction was to discover three things you had in common with the person next to you. My partner and I not only had 23-year-old sons and had just eaten dim sum; but, we’d also, now and then, smoked a cigar.  

That done, we moved to a new partner and repeated the task, only narrowed the commonality to things about theater. Not hard. We’d both been in high school plays, liked French movies, sang in public.  

Then, without fanfare, we practiced telling a story, alternating one word at a time, with a partner. 

That was an exercise in spontaneity. Each of us had a story we wanted to tell but couldn’t control our partner’s words. We were told to say yes to the word the partner offered, to say yes‚ and go with the flow. The object was not to be clever but to get to the end of the story. I could feel my brain neurons crackling. 

Harder exercises were to come. One was like dodge ball but used words and physical contortions instead of a ball. For example, if you were told “pirate” you stood with one hand over your eye, one hand crooked, one foot lifted, as though pegged, saying “Argh” before the challenger rapidly counted to ten. You had to be fast, really fast. And what you wanted was to be out of, not in, the circle. At one point, I was flooded with childhood dread of being stuck in the circle because I was slow. Ms. Stockley was so observant she gave me a new technique that immediately worked me from in to out.  

Finally we mimed little scenes extemporaneously. Very rapidly, we had to decide what we could add to a scene of two actors. I became a soccer goal post, a mother, a band aid. The trick was to add something visually recognizable. One practiced participant became a vibrating cell phone in a scene next to a woman who played Paris Hilton.  

The class moved rapidly. My mind and body were pushed to high alert; there was no slack. Even though I was the oldest, by far, in the class, it only mattered once in the circle game. Most of the time I was as competent as every one else. I learned to wear sneakers not sandals the next week.  

The diversity in the group amazed me. There was a 2007 grad from Cal, a pregnant couple who are engineers, a lawyer and a man who feels old at 46. Nearly half have English as a second language, and are from a variety of countries including Uganda, India, and Rumania. A few were obviously theater types, intense, practiced, eager. The rest of us could be any conglomeration of average folks. Some hung back a bit, others were confused at first but then jumped in. Ms. Stockley urged and demonstrated. She wasn’t a critic, she made it all fun. It felt safe to fail; in fact, we practiced a little “I failed” cheer thrusting our arms into the air and angling our chests out like a gymnast who’s just stuck a landing. 

Alzheimer’s research demonstrates the need to combine social interaction with brain stimulating tasks. In ballroom dancing, the woman has to follow the lead. In Improvisation, women are on an equal footing with the men. Men do not have to bear the heavier burden of leading. We are creating the steps and moves each moment, not practicing what others created decades ago. It is the liveliest way I’ve discovered to be fully present and vibrant.  


Mary Barrett is a Berkeley resident.