Jeff Feazell, a Los Angeles-based improviser, slumped onto the stage looking dejected, forlorn. He was personifying Loneliness at the first-ever Splitopia Improv Show at Westside Comedy Theater in Santa Monica, CA, this past September. This night of comedy was co-hosted by Los Angeles Review of Books, based on my book, Splitopia: Dispatches from Today's Good Divorce and How to Part Well.
In his improvisational riff on loneliness, Feazell refused to drink a beer with fellow improv actor Rich Baker, who was playing a newly divorced guy. Feazell’s Loneliness character sulked around, moped, and refused to leave—as loneliness in real life often does. Improviser Rich Baker, who performs in Mission IMPROVable and Second City, tried to cheer up Feazell’s Loneliness. “Do you have a vision board?” Baker demanded, encouraging Loneliness to think about himself differently, to appreciate his value.
I’d just read an excerpt from Splitopia's chapter five, "Friends . . . and Lack Thereof." This was the hardest chapter for me to write, and the most difficult aspect of my divorce, in many ways. I struggled with loneliness and my shifting friendship circle for the first year and a half of my divorce—at home at night, after my son went to sleep, out on the street unable to find a friend to join me. I wrote and rewrote the chapter over the course of three years. Divorce can shake up your social circle, and a bad marriage preceding it can undermine your appreciation of your own company.
Here's part of the excerpt that I read:
At various points I wondered, could I get too lonely? Was this loneliness dangerous? I talked about being alone, post-marriage, with a man sitting next to me on an airplane, a professor from the Midwest. We were discussing his adjustment to living alone in a big house that made strange noises at night.
“Well, it’s short-term,” I said, trying to be encouraging. “You won’t be alone forever, right?”
“I feel like that’s mean to being alone,” he answered, in his thoughtful, quirky way. “Like if Being Alone were a person, it would hurt its feelings to talk about it that way. As if it were something bad, you hoped would end quickly.”
I did think Being Alone was something bad, requiring an exterminator to bomb it, preferably with old-fashioned, highly toxic pesticide long since banned from use in the States. But I hated being mean, even if only to a concept. Mean as in, unappreciative, inattentive to its positive qualities. Would being “nicer” to Being Alone help me handle it better?
At the improv show, seeing Loneliness come to life as a character gave me, and the rest of the audience, a chance to laugh at our own vulnerability, at the incredible urgency to do something now that loneliness can create.
I loved seeing these ideas taken to stage and stretched. This show was what’s known as an “Armando” in the improv world; one person reads several sections from a single work, and a team of improvisational actors riffs on the text. The actors have no idea what the reader is going to say, nor do they have time to plan before taking to the stage. It’s sketch comedy in the making, in real time, the actors trying to quickly respond to the ideas presented in the reading and to each other.
When improv really works, it’s amazing—a feat of instant collaborative thinking that also feels profound and hilarious. The improvisers that night, including not only Feazell and Baker but also Leah Kilpatrick, Holly Brown, Kiki Aldonis and Atul Singh, definitely hit this high many times.
In another scene, Kilpatrick, who hosts AWEme’s Super-Fan Builds, pretended to be sitting on an airplane, conducting a “wellness poll” of fellow passengers. I’d also read about my “Airplane Poll:”
I’d just begun conducting my own unscientific survey of the State of Family Today, based on people sitting next to me on airplanes in coach. At the time, my family lived in seven states and one European country, and I flew around a lot to see my relations. Based on my Airplane Poll, three out of four people traveling between midsize cities in the U.S. are touched by divorce—theirs or that of their parents, children, or spouse—pretty much as the Census Bureau reports.
Kilpatrick settled into a chair on stage and became a somewhat nosy airplane passenger good-naturedly needling others to tell her how “well” they felt, on a scale of one to 10, driving them into despair through her endless questioning. I thought this was hilarious, and also a kind of reflection on how those of us facing divorce can be totally absorbed it. This awareness made me laugh at myself—my intense hyper-focus on my book writing, that feeling that a creative project can give you that nothing else matters but what you're making.
I decided to host a comedy show about divorce as a way to create a community event that would lessen the pressure for those facing divorce by lightening it. I wanted to see how our very real struggles might look when taken to the stage and exaggerated. We've all heard the idea that "laughter is the best medicine," and certainly felt our own worries lessen when joking with friends, or watching a comedy on TV. This was part of the impetus behind the show.
I was also thinking about the work of psychologist Barbara Fredrickson at the University of Virginia. Fredrickson's "Broaden-and-Build Theory of Positive Emotions" posits the idea that positive emotions and experiences are important for survival. They improve our sleep and creativity, expand our problem-solving skills, help us make and keep social connections, boost resilience and optimism.
Laughter and other positive experiences don’t just make us feel good in the moment; they can give us what Fredrickson calls “durable personal resources,” something we can all use more of in divorce.
For me, writing a book was a hugely positive experience, and an aid to coping with my own divorce. Splitopia Improv was also a way to explore the role that creative expression can play when struggling to successfully deal with loss and uncontrollability. I recently wrote a feature for Psychology Today magazine about people who are living for years or even decades with terminal cancer (an idea I got from another person I met on an airplane). This new longevity is due to a variety of factors, including early detection and medical advances. But the growing field of psycho-oncology—psychology focused on cancer patients’ emotional and social needs—also can help improve people’s lives, and even extend them.
Of course divorce is not cancer, but the research overlaps in certain ways. At Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, for example, cancer patients and caregivers can participate in a meaning-centered psychotherapy program that helps them derive more meaning from their lives by engaging in a creative project or a form of creative expression. This sense of meaning and purpose has been shown to be hugely valuable when it comes to lessening anxiety, improving spiritual well-being, and even being more open to alternative treatments that might be life-saving.
This research really stuck with me, I’ve been particularly interested in ways that people use creativity to gain a sense of control over what can feel like a totally chaotic point in life, and to see the meaning in their days.
If you'd like to read at a future Splitopia Improv show, write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read more about using creativity to get through divorce:
Nadia Colburn's piece, Writing Your Way Through Divorce.
My piece on playwright Michele Traina's one-woman play, Divorce Diaries.
My piece on the Carrie Bradshaw of Houston.
Jeffrey Davis on cultivating The Secret Superpower: Wonder.
Wendy Paris is the author of Splitopia: Dispatches from Today's Good Divorce and How to Part Well (Simon & Schuster/Atria, 2016).Splitopia and her work on divorce have been covered by The New York Times, Real Simple, The Washington Post, The New York Post, The Globe & Mail, Psychology Today, The Houston Chronicle, Salon.com, Parents.com, Family Law Quarterly, PsychCentral.com and radio and TV shows nationwide. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction writing from Columbia University, and is an advocate for family law reform. She is divorced, and lives in Santa Monica, California, a few blocks from her former husband, with whom she has a warm co-parenting relationship.