When Julie Rohr walked in the door of Wellspring Edmonton in 2019, she wasn’t exactly sure what to expect.
Rohr had been diagnosed with incurable cancer several years earlier, and in that time she and her husband had attended plenty of cancer-related programming. But that day’s workshop featured an approach she’d never even considered before: improv comedy.
Within a few minutes of working with instructors from Rapid Fire Theatre, however, Rohr realized that the games she was playing drew upon skills she’d been developing ever since her diagnosis. “Improv is going off script, right?” she says. “I had a script for my life, and five years ago that script was interrupted. I’ve had to go off script ever since.”
Wellspring Edmonton is part of a national network of non-profits that offers a variety of programs to help those living with cancer, as well as their friends and family members. Rapid Fire Theatre was brought on as part of a larger program the centre offers called Refueling Resilience. Their task? Using humour and play to help participants with issues like self-talk and what program director Marilyn Enderby calls “stuck patterns” of thought.
Some participants may have needed a few minutes to warm up to the concept, but before long the entire group was giggling at what they were able to come up with together. One minute, Rohr—a longtime fan of Rapid Fire’s live shows—played a tree in dialogue with the sun overhead; a few minutes later, she had become a criminal fleeing a police officer in hot pursuit.
Improv gave the participants a feeling of camaraderie and a creative outlet. But just as helpful was the opportunity to get out of their own heads. “It can be hard to be in the moment when you’re worried about the future,” Rohr says. “Being present, in this very second, surrounded by laughter, was really calming for my mind in a way that very few other things are. It was almost like meditation, but we weren’t meditating.”
If the participants were bowled over by the workshop’s impact, so were the instructors. “I went in thinking, ‘This will be fun for them.’ I didn’t realize how much it might affect people,” says Julian Faid, an instructor with Rapid Fire and the company’s event entertainment director.
Throughout the class, Faid kept an eye on one man in particular. “Sort of a classic dad-looking gentleman,” he says, who wore a football jersey and favoured jokes that were a little off-colour. Faid worried the man was going to have a hard time letting loose. But once the class was over, he came straight over to Faid, shook his hand, and told him it was the first time in months he’d been able to not think about his chemotherapy. “I acted cool,” Faid remembers, “but I was tearing up inside.”
For her part, Rohr says that she uses the skills she learned from Rapid Fire to this day. “We all go about our days, and we don’t stop to think about comedy as a beneficial practice,” she says. “But I found it to be something I can practice on a regular basis that brings me great relief and comfort.
“Rapid Fire is a valuable part of our city’s fabric,” Rohr adds. “I wouldn’t want to have an Edmonton without them.”
Written by Michael Hingston, an Edmonton-based writer and book publisher
September 8, 2020