Photos by Jess Lynk
Walking into the Des Moines Social Club, visitors are greeted by a fresh, bright looking lobby. Just up the stairs, however, and down the hall sits what looks like an old classroom. Desks, chairs, and art supplies litter the room. The floor is covered with so many reams of paper that it’s difficult to take a step without crunching one.
Yet, in this tiny space, Tim Overton and his improv group, Chowdown, are rehearsing Wednesday night.
“I definitely get something out of entertaining an audience,” Overton says. “But even just improv rehearsals are great because you’re just playing around with your friends. You’re playing make-believe for an hour at a time and you don’t get to do that as an adult very often. So it’s an excuse to just forget about your everyday problems and then do whatever you want.”
Yet for Overton, improv is more than just a fun time. He explains that he started doing improv in 2015, the year he graduated from Iowa State University.
“I was okay at school, but I was dealing with stuff at the time and college made it a lot worse,” Overton says. “A big reason I was switching majors a lot was because I wasn’t making classes, I wasn’t doing work, it was hard to get out of bed a lot of the times.”
Overton says he struggled to find a major he was really passionate about, spending five years trying to discover what to do with the rest of his life.
During his final year of school, he found improv.
“After watching some YouTube videos, actually, of people performing improv in New York…I Googled ‘Des Moines improv,’ and the website for the Last Laugh Comedy Club came up. And I signed up for classes,” he says.
These classes engaged Overton more than his academic classes. He says he was excited driving the 45 minutes from Ames to Des Moines each week for improv practice.
“So finding something that was fun and would get me out of my apartment, and just doing something fun, raised my energy, and [having] energy to do other stuff was really helpful for me,” Overton says.
While improv greatly improved his outlook on life, Overton says he was starting to find the words to really describe his feelings and what he was experiencing.
“For most of my life I had problems with mental health and just didn’t realize it,” he says. “I didn’t have the vocabulary or a comparative experience to judge from what was normal and what I was experiencing. I just thought my whole life that the world was terrible and that people were evil, and they’re there to hurt you.”
Things started to change when he got to college.
“That was like the first time that I really realized that what I was feeling was not just me,” Overton says. “It was this thing, me plus this thing. And thinking of it in these terms was helpful. And that’s when I started seeing a therapist.”
Overton says he was diagnosed with major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder. He tried to continue with his coursework, and improv is what helped him to work through his struggles.
Later, he was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder.
People with borderline personality disorder experience patterns of varying moods, self-image, and behavior, resulting in impulsive actions or problems in relationships, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Overton says this diagnosis helped him see the whole picture.
“Now I finally know who this character is. Now I know why they do this thing, what my motivation is, why I do the things that I do. And I’m better able to not only perform improv, I’m more aware of myself as a person,” he says.
“[Improv] teaches you how to be okay with not knowing what’s going to happen next,” says Jessica Elwell, who has been entertaining with Chowdown and Overton for years. “You have to keep going forward because if you don’t, the scene doesn’t go forward. I may wake up tomorrow and think everything’s going to be horrible and I’m going to feel awful. But maybe not. And you learn to accept that you may not know what’s going to happen.”
Besides helping people prepare for the unknown, improv can also offer a space to work through emotions. He says other performers give him feedback and they discuss why he made some of the decisions he did during the scene.
“So having that observer to give me feedback on behavior, I was able to realize more of the things I was doing [as a result of my borderline personality disorder],” Overton says.
Overton never graduated from Iowa State and has moved back home to Indianola. But he’s still making the trip to Des Moines to perform and rehearse improv.
“Improv is that thing that pushes you out there and gets you doing something, even if you don’t feel like it, even if you feel like, ‘I don’t really feel like doing the show tonight. I don’t feel funny.’ You get there, and you see your friends, and you see an audience that is ready for you to make them laugh. And that can kind of pull you out of whatever hole you’re in.”
The improv community has been just as encouraging as improv has been.
“It’s an incredibly accepting group of people. We don’t have to know you at all and you can come be a weirdo and we’ll totally accept it for what it is, accept you for who you are. That’s kept me going a lot, too,” Overton says.
Elwell says scene partners learn to trust each other during a skit, something that transcends into their personal lives.
“Your scene partner has your back,” she says. “They’re not going to leave you hanging. So in our personal lives, [Tim and I have] been able to connect because we trust each other.”
“One of the biggest things I think that helps people struggling from mental health issues is a sense of community and a group of people that you can talk to about anything,” Overton says. “And I think there are a lot of people in improv and in creative things who deal with similar issues. So there are people who can identify with what you’re going through.”
While improv has helped with his mental illness, Overton says he’ll have to struggle with it for the rest of his life.
“It’s not going to be cured.”
But he says talking about mental illness and seeking professional help should become as common as going to see the dentist.
“Even if you don’t think there’s something wrong with you, just go and prove me wrong if nothing else,” he says. “Who knows? Maybe this person may be able to help you in your life in ways you’ve never realized. So give it a shot. And it’s the same thing for improv. If you’ve ever thought about doing it, or especially if you’re scared of it. If it scares the shit out of you, definitely do it.”