They say laughter can be the best medicine and if that’s true, then students taking Elizabeth Byland’s improv classes must be feeling pretty great.
The 31-year-old actress from Matthews is the co-founder of Queen City Comedy and director of Improv at Acting Out Studio. She recently launched her own series of comedy improv classes for senior citizens around Charlotte and is now tapping into the Matthews community at places like the Levine Senior Center.
“Fifty-five and older is a demographic that often gets overlooked in our community,” she said. “These people have a voice and I want to create a way for their voices to be heard because they’re actually really hilarious.”
Byland grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, and was on the path to becoming a competitive gymnast when she took a speech and drama class in high school and realized her passion for acting. She went on to study acting at Northern Kentucky University and then moved to Chicago to study improv at Improv Olympic. She eventually got her masters in performing arts from Savannah College of Art and Design and, upon graduating, moved to Charlotte with her now fiancé.
Byland said she got the idea to offer improv for seniors about four years ago, when her dad passed away from complications after a stroke. He was an older dad, which she said came with its own set of challenges – friends used to ask her if he was her grandpa when she was in pre-school – and when his health declined, it seemed like he just stopped embracing life.
Byland said her dad would stay cooped up in his house all day watching TV and before she knew it, he was living in a nursing facility. He passed away when she was 25.
Now, she’s on a mission to reach out to other seniors like her dad, and retired folks like her mom, and show them how therapeutic improv comedy can be.
“Improv is about embracing the moment and saying yes to new things. It forces you outside of your comfort zone and to be silly and weird and do things you would have never done before and you form these great connections with other people while you’re doing it,” Byland said. “I mean, the fun is just about to begin. Just because you feel like you’ve reached a point in your life when you done this and this and this, doesn’t mean you’re done living.”
There are also several cognitive benefits, especially for those 55 and older. Byland said improv works the brain’s frontal cortex, which is responsible for organizing thoughts, memories and emotional reactions, and studies show that a playful state of mind reduces the chances of dementia and Alzheimer’s.
“I think back to my dad and think, ‘If I could have just taken these same aspects and exposed him to some of these principles,’ but there was no way I could have known that then,” she said.
Byland has already taught a handful of classes, including workshops at Sharon Presbyterian Church and Sharon Towers in SouthPark, and some in Cornelius and Fort Mill, S.C. In January, she will start offering senior workshops at the Levine Senior Center in Matthews.
Each class lasts about an hour, but can be longer, and costs anywhere between $5 and $20. Those interested should check queencity comedy.com for upcoming dates and email ElizabethBy firstname.lastname@example.org to sign up.
With her dad as her inspiration, Byland hopes to eventually turn her business into a nonprofit and expand to regions outside Charlotte.
“Maybe I couldn’t help my dad in this way, but I can help other people,” she said. “As invigorating as improv is for these seniors, it’s just as inspiring for me. It’s just as awesome for me to see that individual come to life.”