WIT’s Mark Chalfant has a brilliant idea: Improv can combat loneliness 

In a city plagued by social isolation, the head of Washington Improv Theater makes the case for improv as a catalyst for connection.

By Mark Chalfant, artistic and executive director, Washington Improv Theater

When thought leaders and policymakers gather in DC on Tuesday, June 11, for the third annual Global Loneliness Awareness Summit, they’ll be doing so in “the loneliest city in America,” according to census data analyzed by the Chamber of Commerce.

Almost half (48.6%) of all DC households are occupied by one person—that’s a higher rate than New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles. While living alone doesn’t automatically equate to being lonely, the inherently transient nature of our city’s workforce, today’s remote and hybrid working arrangements, and an overall decrease in people’s capacity to leave the sofa are just a few reasons Washingtonians feel socially isolated.

It’s not just us. Last year, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued a stark warning that the U.S. is facing a nationwide epidemic of loneliness.

“In recent years, about one-in-two adults in America reported experiencing loneliness. And that was before the COVID-19 pandemic,” writes Dr. Murthy at the start of a troubling, 82-page advisory that spells out the significant toll that social isolation can take on individuals, including a greater risk of heart disease, dementia, stroke, depression, anxiety, and premature death.

“Social connection is a fundamental human need, as essential to survival as food, water, and shelter,” he adds.

Mark Chalfant, artistic and executive director of Washington Improv Theater. Photo courtesy of WIT.

The performing arts—and improvisational theater in particular—are powerful catalysts for meaningful social connection. As the artistic and executive director of Washington Improv Theater for over 20 years, I’ve seen firsthand how improv helps drastically improve people’s self-confidence, communication skills, and ability to navigate life’s uncertainties. In short, how it gives people the tools to combat loneliness.

We see it throughout WIT’s work: working in Ward 8 with women experiencing homelessness, coaching U.S. military veterans via the Armed Services Arts Partnership, training board members and business executives in our senior leadership training, and providing a safe space for kinship, self-expression, and artistic discovery for members of our LGBTQ+ community on WIT’s stage.

I find it especially rewarding to watch adults of all ages and backgrounds, who are starting out as Level 1 students, as they begin to explore the principle of “Yes, and!” and discover the magic that lies in trusting and truly listening to those around them, and themselves. For many of our students (myself included!), the improv learning journey is life-changing.

That’s because improv brings people together, offering them a chance to laugh, play, and forge lasting friendships in a city that takes itself very seriously, and where it can be difficult to make new acquaintances outside the traditional confines of school or work.

Members of the team Chaos, who competed in WIT’s annual Fighting Improv Smackdown Tournament. Clockwise from top: Aubrey Peterson, Diego Dew, Clare Mulligan, and Geoff Corey. Photo by Jeff Salmore.

Creating a culture of connection in a city where the ubiquitous icebreaker question at any social event is “So, what do you do?” is no easy feat. But it is achievable. It starts with the radical (for DC) act of folks from all walks of life bringing their authentic selves to a low-stakes setting that centers their humanity and not their work identity.

Improv is wildly accessible and inclusive, which fuels the supportive vibe it thrives on. Whatever body, voice, and life experience you have—that’s enough for you to improvise with. It’s a judgment-free zone where we embrace risk and failure and center support, empathy, and cocreation over competition.

If you, dear reader, haven’t explored an artistic outlet in a while, do it now and discover the connection and community waiting for you. Deliberately weaving the arts into our lives is a kind of self-care that pays high dividends.

Strangers attending a free Improv for All workshop mugging for the camera together just a couple hours after meeting. Photo courtesy of WIT.

To make the social and psychological benefits of the arts available to everyone, the private and public sectors, including civil society actors, must commit to working together to galvanize social infrastructure as a matter of critical importance and urgency.

As advocates and experts meet in DC (and with lawmakers on Capitol Hill on Wednesday) during Global Loneliness Awareness Week, local officials should pay close attention to the summit’s recommendations. If we hope to rid DC of its dubious distinction as the “loneliest city in America,” and to revitalize the vacancy-plagued areas downtown, then just converting empty office buildings into housing or attracting new retail to boarded-up storefronts will not be enough.

It’s all just glass and concrete if we don’t ensure that there are spaces, like Washington Improv Theater, where people from all walks of life can learn, play, share their humanity, and exchange ideas. Regardless of what they do for a living!

In the words of Dr. Murthy, “If we fail to do so, we will pay an ever-increasing price in the form of our individual and collective health and well-being. And we will continue to splinter and divide until we can no longer stand as a community or a country. Instead of coming together to take on the great challenges before us, we will further retreat to our corners—angry, sick, and alone.”

That’s a future that no one wants.

Is improv as fun as it looks? Yes, it is! Here’s how to get involved through WIT.

  • Take a free, two-hour Improv for All workshop. WIT regularly hosts these workshops at public library locations and other venues in all eight wards of the city throughout the year.
  • Learn the foundations of improv, while having fun and meeting new people, by taking a Level 1 class. (Summer courses start mid-June!)
  • Take WIT to your work! WIT provides expert-led training for teams, senior leaders, boards, and at all-hands meetings and corporate events through its WIT@Work program.
  • See a WIT show, including free performances on Monday nights!
WIT@Work brings the tools and techniques of improv to the workplace. Photo by Mikail Faalasli.

WIT’s summer season, “Genre Reveal Party,” kicks off June 14!

Break out the confetti-filled balloons and colorful cupcakes! This summer, WIT’s company ensembles are playfully experimenting with genres ranging from disaster movies and after-school specials to Westerns and “horror-comedies.”

You’ll also see the return of many talented indie troupes from the DC region, as well as the debut of “What Had Happened Was,” featuring a cast of all-Black improvisers, who will reimagine classic sitcoms, like Friends and Full House, from a different and fresh perspective. Read an interview with the co-creators, Krystal Ali and Samiyyah Ali.

Dates: Friday and Saturday evenings from June 14 to July 27, 2024, (except July 5 and 6)

Location: Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St NW (2nd floor Milton stage)

Tickets: On Fridays, WIT is offering an “All-Access Pass” for $15 that enables audience members to come and go as they please from 7:30 PM to 11 PM. On Saturdays, the 5 PM show is “pay-what-you-choose” and the 7 PM and 9 PM performances are each $15. Purchase tickets to all summer shows here.

Mark Chalfant
has spearheaded WIT’s growth since 1999. After helping to re-energize and rebuild WIT as an all-volunteer, ensemble-led collective, Mark stepped in to become the company’s first full-time staff member in 2004. Since then, he has led the organization to realize tremendous growth in WIT’s programming breadth, in the community of players, teachers, patrons and students, and WIT staff. He feels extremely fortunate to work with a team of wonderful people promoting an art form and ideas he’s passionate about. Mark has directed and coached dozens of WIT ensemble projects and has taught thousands of students as an instructor in WIT’s classes program. He has studied improv nationwide and has pursued theater training throughout DC (Studio Theatre, Woolly Mammoth, Shakespeare Theatre Company, and Theatre Lab). An adjunct professor at Catholic University’s Rome School of Music, Drama, and Art, Mark is also a member of Leadership Greater Washington’s Class of 2017.


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