How One Anxious Human Improvised Their Way to Success

By: Hayley Kellett

Let me introduce you to Yitzi Gal, an NYU Masters Student studying Drama Therapy, specifically focusing on the use of improvisation theatre. Here are five facts you should know:

  1. Yitzi is a very charming, very vegan person.
  2. He is a seasoned improviser and has performed in multiple festivals across North America including The Del Close Marathon in NYC.
  3. Yitzi was the coach for my first ever longform team at Second City, Toronto and continues to teach there as an improv instructor.
  4. His original career path was that of a lawyer, but he left that to one of his 8 siblings to explore.
  5. Yitzi has inspired the Toronto improv community in a way I have never seen before.

Oh, and he also happens to suffer from extreme social anxiety. When I met Yitzi, he had been improvising for one year and I never would have guessed the intensity of his anxiety. His story has inspired countless others to try improv, so I wanted to share it with you. This interview outlines what his life was like before improv, and how it changed once he started studying the art form.

Yitzi, before we dive in to your journey with improv, could you tell me a bit about your life living with social anxiety?
Wow. Pre-improv it was a whole different world. I grew up in a very insular, isolated community, which is the orthodox Jewish community in Thornhill. I had the same classmates and the same surrounding people from kindergarten to Grade 12, so I was able to hide my social anxiety pretty well. But even within that community, I was barely able to utter a word.

Was existing in a world with so much structure and such little variance affecting how you managed your anxiety?
With anxiety, it’s easy to get comfortable in very specific situations where you know exactly what to do and what the rules are. The anxiety is still there, but it was a manageable amount when I felt safe. But as soon as I went to a restaurant, or a store, panic would set it. I know a lot of people who don’t like going to clothing stores when staff are working on commission because they follow you around, but for me just, “hey welcome to the store” was enough to cause stress.

What were to you doing at the time to manage your anxiety?
It was pretty much just avoidance. That was my chief tool.

So you had no formal therapy or anything? It was just avoidance?
Things changed when I went to University for the first time. Initially, I had signed up for a degree in Business & Society. An older student helping with class sign up told me that Psychology was multiple choice and an easier arts degree than other things, so I switched my major on the first day. Now because a lot of my professors were psychologists, they quickly realized I was having issues. They were helpful. Some of them gave me tips and ideas on how to combat what was going on in my head. A lot of it was cognitive behaviour [therapy]. They would tell me to [frame things] a certain way, use a certain voice, use certain words to give myself that confidence.

That’s so helpful! Its fantastic that your teachers were so aware and ready to help.
I had one professor that noticed whenever I said my name I would say it in a questioning term. I would go “Yitzi?” So he started making me end each sentence with the words damn it. This was a class of over 200 people and I whenever I had to speak I had to yell damn it after everything I said. In the middle of class he would turn to me and say:

“Yitzi, what time is it?”
                 “4:15 damn it!”
“Yitzi, what page are we on?”
                 “125 damn it!” 

I found it very helpful.

So how did you discover improv?
My sister pushed me towards it. And when I say "push", what I really mean is "shove."  She had taken classes with her husband in the mid to late 90’s. This was a good thing about being the 8th of 9 kids, I had siblings who had gone down lots of different paths and could give advice on lots of different things. I was living in her basement at the time, and I would come home covered in sweat ready to pass out from the day's ordeal of dealing with other humans. She noticed, and suggested I take improv classes because she thought it would be helpful for me to talk and have conversations. It took a few months, but she surprised me and paid for my Level A class at Second City. She gave me her car so I could drive down. She basically took away any excuse I had not to go, so suddenly I was going to an improv class, the most terrifying thing in the world.

FUN FACT: Improvisation Theatre began with a woman named Viola Spolin . Spolin was a social worker with youth in the inner city of Chicago and created therapeutic exercises and games to assist those struggling to grasp social constructs and manage their anxiety. Turns out, these games were accidentally entertaining. One thing lead to another and improv as we know it was born.

You had no excuses; it was just you versus yourself.
Yes. Plus, even with the anxiety I never wanted to be rude to people. I always wanted to be positive and do the right thing. My sister had two or three kids at the time so her giving me the car, the only way to move around with the kids, was a huge sacrifice for her. I felt this huge responsibility to show up for the classes, if I didn’t go, it would be unfair for her. 

How was your first class?
I remember I barely participated. I would join in but I would hide in plain sight. I don’t think I said anything more than my own name. My class was large, maybe 18 people, so it was very easy to disappear into that crowd. There was great safety in that. I don’t think I did anything for the first few classes. I would wait in my car if I got to class early, so I could walk into the room a few minutes late, so there would be no interaction with other students before the instructor arrived. That was the most terrifying thing: an actual conversation.

Now Ive got some insider information, and I know that every year you celebrate your anniversary with an instructor of yours named Brian Smith.  What was it about Brians teaching that changed your improv experience?
Brian was my Level D and Level E teacher at Second City. Brian took an interest in helping me. Over the course of my training I had found patterns and ways to not be vulnerable at all in scenes. For example, I was smart enough to rhyme. I could rhyme without giving up any of myself - those types of things. Brian was the one to make sure I couldn’t hide behind those things. For example, I used to stay in the back right corner of the room. He kept on calling it “Yitzi’s Corner” because whenever I had to do a scene or exercise with anyone I would do it from there. Brian made a rule that I wasn’t allowed to stand in that corner anymore. I would have to actually move in the classroom. I was unable to hide.

Yitzi and Brian celebrating an early anniversary in 2010.

Yitzi and Brian celebrating an early anniversary in 2010.

What else about working with Brian helped you?
Brian would mention how improv exercises could be used outside of class. He would make the simple connection that the rules of a scene could be applied when you’re talking to someone outside of a scene in real life. On the third class, Brian invited me to The Charlotte Room, the bar that all Second City students would go to after class. He said they go and they talk and that I never showed up, and he wanted to see me there. So he insisted I come and said I was going to have two conversations with people from class, and that he would be there for both of them.

This was unheard of for me, that someone would take such an interest, and notice that I would be panicked and I would see my teacher as an authority figure so I would be more likely to go. So I went to the bar. I remember Brian called a classmate over and said “Hey Yitzi, you like soccer, and you like soccer as well.” In my panic I remember saying “I don’t like soccer!” and Brian would say, “You’re killing me Yitzi,”

So Brain managed to pull you out of your comfort zone, and still poke fun at you and make you feel good. My impression is that he removed so much of the stigma and stress. That it was okay to make those mistakes. Give you safe place to fail, because you already felt like you were going to.
That failure was something that we would all laugh about. When something would go wrong, Brian was so good at making a joke about it. Everybody would laugh and I would think, “Oh! Nobody is shunning me.”  Before improv, I always felt like everybody I knew was on the fence if they were going to see me again. That I could say one wrong thing and everyone would go, "yup we’re done," and I would lose everyone in my life. So there was this huge amount of weight that I would put on the words that came out of my mouth. Brian taught me that I could trip on my words and someone would be there to laugh with me about it. It was very different than the pressure I had about failure in my mind.

Brian and Yitzi on stage together in 2014.

Brian and Yitzi on stage together in 2014.

Once you had improv, what changed in your life outside of class?
It feels like everything.

Haha, could you be more specific?
For the first time in my life, I was starting to see I could be a person I was okay with. It’s a strange thing, for so long I felt this need to pretend to be as strong as possible because if you showed weakness or vulnerability you would lose everyone. I was slowly coming to terms with the idea that vulnerability and weakness are human things and that allowing for them one can be their true self, and end up liking themselves.

Now youre teaching improv!
I still feel strange about it, knowing where I started.

Do you think you have a different approach because of your experiences?
I feel like I know everyone’s anxiety when they come into that classroom. So instead of brushing it aside, I really lean into that fear. I don’t have the option not to do it. It’s ingrained in me to recognize it because it’s in me as well. It’s a strange thing because when someone is paying for the class, I feel like I should come in as an expert, but really the best thing to do is to come in as a guide. Be someone who’s done this once before, and can walk them through.

Youve had an incredible journey Yitzi. You started as someone who thought this was impossible, but have landed firmly in the opposite world as someone who knows that improv can help.
I can present this in the way it works for me, and hope it works for others.

Do you have any advice for folks out there struggling with their own anxieties and are considering trying improv?
If you only try things that you know you’ll be good at, you’ll never learn anything new. There is something that is very helpful and very growth oriented in improv. There will be times your terrified and that’s okay. Trusting and coming back, will end up working. There is this feeling that it’s not happening fast enough, but being present and being there is 99% of the battle. Don’t get disillusioned quickly. Don’t get scared and jump out. It’ll be worth it.

Yitzi performing with Canadian Comedy Award Winner Adam Cawley and Nominee Rob Norman.

Yitzi performing with Canadian Comedy Award Winner Adam Cawley and Nominee Rob Norman.

Yitzi Gal went on to graduate from Second City's Longform and Conservatory programs. He recently completed his Master’s Degree in Drama Therapy from Universities in New York and Montreal and is currently writing his thesis on how improvisation theatre has been used in the past within therapy, specifically focusing on Spolin’s exercises and philosophies. Yitzi can be found teaching and performing at festivals across North America and on stages across the GTA.

HAYLEY KELLETT  has spent most of her life celebrating two things: Ontario peaches and the joys of improv. Naturally she was filled with pride to be nominated for a Canadian Comedy Award: Best Female Improviser (2015) as well as NOW Magazine's Best Female Improviser (2015). Hayley has a long history with the world renowned Second City with select credits including  Holidazed and Confused (Tour Co.), Miracle on Mercer Street  and cruising the improv-seas with the Norwegian Star and Dawn. Other career highlights include kissing Colin Mochrie on the mouth.

HAYLEY KELLETT has spent most of her life celebrating two things: Ontario peaches and the joys of improv. Naturally she was filled with pride to be nominated for a Canadian Comedy Award: Best Female Improviser (2015) as well as NOW Magazine's Best Female Improviser (2015). Hayley has a long history with the world renowned Second City with select credits including Holidazed and Confused (Tour Co.), Miracle on Mercer Street and cruising the improv-seas with the Norwegian Star and Dawn. Other career highlights include kissing Colin Mochrie on the mouth.