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At a recent improvisational acting class at the Senior Center, led by village resident and improv instructor Justin Howard, attendees participated in a number of quick-thinking and confidence-building exercises. Shown above, Howard’s students were tasked with making the letter “W” with their bodies. Hilarity ensued. (Photo by Reilly Dixon)

Seniors say ‘yes, and…’ to life

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It’s a foundational touchstone of improvisational acting: An improviser accepts what another actor has said or done — “yes” — and then builds upon that line of thinking with something more — “and …”

But in a free eight-week improv class at the Yellow Springs Senior Center, local seniors are learning to affirm more than just one another in make-believe scenarios. Through exercises that build confidence, foster humility and sharpen wit, village resident and lifelong improv actor Justin Howard is teaching those seniors how to say “yes, and …” to life.

“It’s all about learning how to not let anxiety be in charge,” Howard, 41, told the News last week. “Improv is good in that way. It forces the brain to fire in a way it wouldn’t normally.”

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A lifelong performer, Howard comes to the Senior Center with decades of experience helping others conquer their fears, both on and off stage.

Throughout his career, Howard has taught thousands of classes and workshops to salesmen looking to hone their tactics, Harvard MBA students wanting to climb corporate ladders, hospital receptionists who deal with patients in crisis, high school students and many others.

Beyond all that, he was the founder of Dayton’s Black Box Improv Theater, a featured speaker at the inaugural TEDx Dayton talks, a star in a Chipotle commercial and, soon, will be the commentator for an “American Ninja Warrior” event at the upcoming NFL draft. Most recently, he started his own consulting company, Emerge Improv, through which he leads communication and confidence-building seminars.

“When people ask me what I do for a living, it’s very hard to describe,” Howard said with a laugh, and added that he also picks up shifts at Tweedle D’s cannabis store.

Yellow Springs resident Justin Howard recently began leading an eight-week-long improvisational acting class at the Senior Center. The course’s goals are to increase confidence, instill humility and sharpen the wit of those who attend. (Submitted photo)

It all started with a chance encounter with a college improv class that gave Howard the gift of gab and brought him out of his shell as a quiet, small-town athlete.

“Improv just clicked,” he said. “Absolutely I was nervous at first — people always are when they try something new. But I saw an immediate path forward for me.”

Now, years later, Howard’s paving that path for others. In his seminars, he teaches literacy in body language, how to respond to the unexpected and, as he put it, how to tamp down that inner voice that sows self-doubt.

“Life can be miserably hard, and we’re all up against so much,” Howard said. “Why should you have to fight yourself on top of it all? When people lack confidence, it’s because they’re telling stories about themselves that simply aren’t true.”

While those are all skills Howard believes anyone can benefit from knowing, he said seniors especially can reap a great deal from learning the art of improv.

“That’s the reason I’m doing this for free at the Senior Center: to inspire [attendees] to better themselves, to challenge them and get their brains working,” he said.

So, how exactly does Howard help his students accomplish these ambitious goals?

The answer is, often, quite silly group exercises.

For instance, at the first of his eight-class series at the Senior Center, held last Thursday morning, Howard had his seven students stand in a circle and introduce themselves as superheroes. Their superhero name had to be an alliteration, and the introduction had to incorporate a dramatic pose. After some light prodding from Howard, Daredevil Donna, Boomer Bill, Magnificent Maggie and other local heroes had landed in the Great Room.

Later in the hour-long session, students were tasked with working together to contort their bodies in the shapes of letters. (A two-person “F” didn’t hold a candle to the challenge of a seven-person “W.”)

Then, Howard asked his seniors to think of their biggest pet peeve. Two at a time, they would sit side-by-side, and when Howard pointed at them, they would have to talk about their peeves until he stopped pointing. Much to their surprise, the seniors were able to talk at length — without any preparation — about their perturbations. Randy went on a hilarious screed about ketchup as an inferior condiment; Ellie nearly went blue in the face when describing an ice cube tray that hadn’t been refilled.

“Sometimes they would get stuck — especially when put on the spot,” Howard later recounted. “That’s just anxiety, which comes from a misdirection of our attention. Improv is about learning to be in charge of where our attention goes. In that way, it can be similar to practicing mindfulness or meditation.”

By the end of last Thursday’s class, Howard’s students were noticeably more relaxed and confident than the stiff, uncertain superheroes who introduced themselves at the outset. Like Howard said, it was just a matter of fostering confidence and learning to move through the discomfort.

“I think people like thinking of themselves as static entities, as being a part of a particular, unchanging category — especially seniors,” Howard said. “But, no. We are dynamic. We’re always changing and evolving.”

Howard added: “I believe we die when we stop learning, and improv has so much to teach.”

To learn more about Justin Howard’s weekly improv class or to inquire about involvement, contact the Yellow Springs Senior Center at 937-767-5751. For additional information on Howard’s instruction and services, visit his website at, email or call 937-248-0144.

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