Founder of Improv It Up, CIO (Chief Inspirational Officer), Master Facilitator
From forging her personal journey to empowering others to overcome obstacles through improv, Tiffani Sierra, Master Facilitator and Founder of Improv It Up, shares how our Certificate Program in Social Emotional Arts gave her tangible tools to increase the impact of her work.
To what art form do you feel most connected? How did you become connected to it?
Theatre–specifically improv. I began my journey in 1995, when I transferred to an arts high school in San Francisco. The arts have been incredibly freeing for me.
In 2001, when I lived on the east side of Harlem, kids would come to my stoop on Sundays and rap, tell stories, and essentially improvise. They used the art of storytelling to relieve stress and feel free. It became clear to me that this art form was more than an expression for actors, but also a healing way for people to express their emotions and tell their stories.
I began using the arts as a therapeutic tool with incarcerated youth a few years later in San Francisco through an organization called Each One Reach One. When I moved to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career in 2006, I found an organization doing similar work called The Unusual Suspects where we reached incarcerated youth and youth in underserved areas of LA using the arts as a tool for positive self-expression. Improv became a storytelling tool for the youth we were working with. I witnessed first-hand how these programs were having a healing effect on the participants. Knowing how improv and the arts helped me, I realized programs like these could have a therapeutic effect on adults and children.
That same year, while attending classes at The Second City school of improvisation, my mother passed away very suddenly and tragically. Improv became my therapy and my way to express myself in a safe environment with people I could trust. I realized that improv was really a great way to freely express yourself, share your personal stories, and be without fear of judgment. I knew I needed to share this tool to help others.
In 2010, I began teaching my first improv class in West Hollywood. It began as a workshop for actors to help free themselves up for auditions. Slowly, I began getting non-actor students, too: engineers, priests, seminarians, business owners who were reflecting that improv was helping them to become more confident, speak their truths, and work through fears. Through this, Improv It Up was born.
With what populations do you work?
We work with middle and high school students as well as corporations, non-profits, small businesses, and individuals.
In what ways have you integrated your training in social emotional arts into the work you are currently doing? What difference has it made?
In everything we do! It has been life changing. I always knew the arts had therapeutic effects from my personal experience but when I graduated from the Certificate Program in Social Emotional Arts (SEA) and began applying elements into my teaching, it became so clear that this work could transform other peoples’ lives! We have a 100% rate of students (adults and youth) stating they felt more confident or “better about themselves” after our programs. In our school programs, we have seen students overcome great obstacles—from not speaking to becoming a lead in our final play. In our adult programs, the same is true, as seen in the below testimonial from one of our students:
“On a personal level, I was speaking at my mother’s “Celebration of Life.” Had it not been for the skills Tiffani and Adrian had given me, I would not have been able to share what I wanted to the audience. Yes, it was the most difficult/emotional public speaking event I have ever had to do. But I was able to show who I really was and what I needed to convey to the audience on the love and respect I had for her. If you feel that you have the potential to do something, but fear/insecurities or just not knowing how to get started. Take a course from Improv It Up! You will be amazed at the potential that is inside of you just waiting to come out“.
What does “social emotional arts” mean to you?
A way to use the arts therapeutically, express yourself safely, be accepted and loved for who you are, and know you are enough!
All of it! The final project was truly amazing. We are able to put all of the skills we learned in front of our peers and a professional panel. For me, the program was also personally healing. I found myself on a personal journey of uncovering new truths about who I am and what I am capable of doing. I continue to find in our programs that I learn and grow from watching others take positive risks and overcome fears. It is so healing to witness bravery and courage in others.
What skills did you learn in the Certificate Program that you use today?
What skills don’t I use! We use all of the components of SEA in our programs– especially school programs. One thing I found valuable was learning as a facilitator to be in control of your energy since your students will pick up and follow that. Being able to lead while staying relaxed and calm, even during challenging times or environments, is key.
What are your goals working with social emotional arts?
To deliver impactful programs that give others the choice of positive transformation.
Have you experienced any “Aha!” moments since completing the Certificate Program?
Many! I was facilitating a very challenging program with one of our teaching artists. The students had great amounts of trauma in their lives. Each day felt like going back to the drawing board of what would work with them. We found that one-on-one time doing what we called “walk and talks” was highly valuable. In this approach, we would share bits about ourselves and then opened up the floor for them to express their likes and dislikes about the program. It empowered them, changed the dynamic of the class, and helped the facilitators decide pivot points on how the program could change.
Any words of advice to those interested in either taking the Certificate Program and/or incorporating social emotional arts into their field?
Your life will change! Open your heart to what is being taught and you will be able to lead with great love and have the ability to help others make positive change. This is truly a must for any one in arts education. Enjoy the journey—it never ends!