Upon returning from the military, many people feel empty, isolated and traumatized. At least 20 percent of veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from post-traumatic stress, according to the Rand Corp. In 2016, the Department of Veterans Affairs recorded approximately 20 suicides each day.
While researching their issues in college, Sam Pressler was struck by the immense challenge for veterans to re-enter society. He was especially disturbed by the many suicides.
"I thought, 'What do we do when we're not connected with people?'" he says. "We try to use humor. Laughter is a universal language."
After months of brainstorming, meeting with veterans' groups and spearheading an official student organization, Pressler launched a stand-up comedy class for veterans in March 2015. It was intended as an outlet for former military members, a distinctive way for them to express themselves creatively with humor. They sharpened their comedic skills beside fellow former military members, connecting over common experiences and the universal language of laughter.
This stand-up class, known as Comedy Bootcamp, thrived. Two months later, the Armed Services Arts Partnership, or ASAP, was born and made a nonprofit. By last year, ASAP offered classes in writing, storytelling and stand-up for veterans and their families. But there was still a yearning for something a bit more theatrical, team-oriented and silly. Meet: Improv Comedy Bootcamp.
A Style reporter was asked not to sit in on a class due to privacy concerns, but for those who don't know, improv comedy is a style of live theater during which scenes and story lines are made up on the spot. It involves heavy emphasis on teamwork, communication and cooperation, artfully wielded to craft a collected performance.
"You have a team with you as a support network," Pressler says. "It mirrors the support network of the military."
Improv comedy classes for veterans started at both the College of William and Mary and the Unified Scene Theater in Washington. After much positive feedback, veteran bonding and broken comfort zones, the program wandered over to Richmond, where Pressler stumbled upon Coalition Theater.
Its co-founder and director, Matt Newman, agreed to lead an eight-week class for veterans and their families. Like any standard Improv 101 class, the course teaches students how to use emotion, connections, listening and spontaneity to create scenes together.
"We've got to support each other on stage because at any moment, any one of us could feel like we're failing," Newman explains. "That kind of vulnerability and trust in groups builds connections and a sense of community really quickly."
Sharon Kang, a veteran of the military and of the improv program, knows firsthand how difficult it can be to reintegrate into civilian life.
"Veterans feel isolated a lot of the time. The challenge is, how do I find common ground with people that I had nothing to do with on a daily basis?" Kang asks. "ASAP is … a huge step into incorporating communities."
The program continues to progress as a unique and creative outlet for veterans and their family members. Pressler maintains that it isn't therapy, but can be extremely therapeutic. And once students finish the introductory class, they have the opportunity to take higher classes, work with classmates, or participate in open mics and jams.
"We just want to help [veterans] build new skills, express themselves and come together as a community," Pressler says. "For people who were or are still in the military, that ability to drop the seriousness and let go is really helpful." S
The Veterans Improv Grad Show will be held at the Coalition Theater on Saturday, May 20, at 5:30 p.m. Admission is free but donations are welcome.