From Troops To Troupes: Northeastern Vets Find Confidence Again With Improv

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Northeastern University is offering veteran students improv workshops to help them find their voice as they come back into the civilian world.

Improv for Northeastern veterans was the idea of Air Force veteran Andrew McCarty, the director of the university's Center for the Advancement of Veterans and Servicemembers. Before the service, he was an amateur actor.

"When I got out, for some reason, I found that sometimes I had a stutter. I tripped over my words. I was thinking too much. It slowed my speech down," McCarty said. "I went from being confident in front of 500 people to sometimes not being able to find my voice around a conference table of a handful of people.

"I felt like it was limiting me professionally and socially as well."

McCarty soon found other vets had the same experience. They found they had lost their voices after leaving the military.

"I lost that when I got out. I felt like I lost my voice that I had learned in the military."

Max Spahn

"I didn't know that this was a thing," McCarty said. "I didn't know that other people had the same challenge. And so, when I realized that other vets were experiencing the same thing and were held back in the same way that I was held back, it really solidified the fact that I gotta make this happen."

Max Spahn, a former Northeastern student, could relate, too. In the Marines, he had learned how to be a leader.

"And then, I lost that when I got out," he said. "I felt like I lost my voice that I had learned in the military. And a lot of it was because, when you're in, you know what you're talking about, so you can speak off the cuff and not worry about making mistakes.

"But now, for me, interviews, leading my meetings — where I'm not 100 percent an expert on the material — I lose my confidence to think on the fly, and hopefully, this'll help," he added, laughing.

Max Spahn and Andy McCarty at the Center for the Advancement of Veterans and Servicemembers at Northeastern University. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Max Spahn and Andy McCarty at the Center for the Advancement of Veterans and Servicemembers at Northeastern University. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Everyone's 'Being Weird' And Building Confidence

At a recent improv workshop, the veterans started with a very basic exercise to loosen up.

"It's called an eight-count shake out, OK?" explained their instructor, Joey Lopez, of Improv Asylum. "So what it is, is you are going to go through each limb eight times. You're going to go one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight ..."

Lopez is a veteran himself.

"I started improv at the Air Force Academy," Lopez said. "We started our own little improv team."

After a month, the skits get more sophisticated. In this sketch, the veterans played a character from a movie. They each have to explain why they are late, and the others guess what movie they're talking about:

"Sorry I was late," one veteran began.

"Hey, it's OK!" replied another vet.

"Don't beat yourself up!" added a second participant.

"So I was running this bar," the veteran explained, getting deeper into character. "And this woman came in [saying] that we used to be together, and she was there with her new lover, and they needed help and they needed to get away, and I needed to help them. And the police were after them, and the military was after them, and it ended up getting up real messy, and in the end ..."

" 'Stop-Loss'?" someone guessed.

"No," said the veteran. "It was a long time ago that this happened, but it still held me up. It was in Morocco."

" 'Casablanca'?" another vet guessed.

"Nice, that's great!" encouraged Lopez.

Spahn said the month-long workshop has taught him how to be more confident.

"Being here and everyone being weird just let me know, no one cares," Spahn said. "No one cares what you're saying as long as you get your point across, and you're happy with what you say, you can have fun with life. I wish we could do this again every week. I want to keep doing this every week. I might come in in the morning with Andy, and start doing eight-count shakes just to start the day."

There have also been some lessons for McCarty, the program at Northeastern's founder.

"Communication is important," McCarty said. "It can be a struggle for some veterans — not all veterans — but it can be a hurdle that we have to overcome as we transition back into the civilian world, and this is one avenue to approach dealing with that hurdle."

McCarty is planning more workshops at Northeastern's Boston campus, and, if he gets the funding, at cities and military installations across the Eastern seaboard.

This segment aired on July 18, 2017.


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Fred Thys Reporter
Fred Thys reported on politics and higher education for WBUR.



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