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Cambridge-born comic uses improv to combat anxiety, help others

After reaching one of his lowest points, Cambridge native Cam Algie took up an unlikely hobby that saved his life. Now he's using comedy to help others with his company, Play With Fire improv and Second City in Toronto
Cameron Algie (middle) acts in an improv show in Toronto.

When going down the darkest road of his life, Cambridge native Cam Algie says it seemed like there was only one way out, until he was saved by an unlikely hobby — improv comedy. 

More than two decades later, the 46-year-old Toronto comic is known across Canada for pioneering workshops that use improv to conquer anxiety, first bringing it to a small group called Impatient, then to the infamous troupe Second City in Toronto.

For as long as he can remember, Algie says he's suffered from anxiety and depression. At some points he was too scared to leave his house. His world revolved around the central theme of not being good enough and being afraid to fail. 

“I always felt isolated. I never left my house and I was just scared and sad all the time,”  Algie says. 

Born and raised in Cambridge, he says he lived a privileged, safe and comfortable life. He had every reason to be a happy outgoing extrovert, but instead lived inside his mind and became miserable.

“You think living in such an idyllic, safe space you wouldn’t have these issues, but despite my time living in Cambridge, I was still going through all this stuff,” he said. 

Algie attended Southwood Secondary School where he flew under the radar and kept to himself. He got a normal job as a writer for an advertisement company and moved to Toronto. 

Algie says he would go to work as an advertiser loathing his job, stressed by even having to get up in the morning. 

He was seeing a therapist for his fear of flying, a necessary requirement of his job. When he told his therapist that he had gone to an improv show and loved it, his shrink had an idea, he recalls. 

“They told me to go take some improv classes to help break me out of my shell,” Algie says. “This was one of the worst things they could have said to me. Why would I want to go and make a fool of myself in front of a room full of strangers when I am too afraid to even leave my house.” 

So, he made the next logical step and dropped his therapist for suggesting such a "crazy idea." 

That decision would send Algie on a dark spiral with the potential for a very abrupt and sad ending. But he couldn’t let go of the thought of trying an improv class at least once. 

“I found something scarier than improv, which was ending my life. And so I was like, okay, actually the fear of improv pales a little bit by comparison. I'll give improv a go,” he says. 

After taking classes at Second City in Toronto nearly 20 years ago, Algie fell in love with the acting, joking and unpredictability of being on stage. He was able to be himself and come to terms with his anxiety, depression and the things he cannot change. 

“One of the central themes in improv is saying yes, accepting the unexpected and adapting when things don’t go as planned,” Algie says. “I guess you have to, because the other option is to just mentally struggle against it, I know, I did it for years.”

Instead of living inside of his own head with dark thoughts and self-loathing ideas, through improv he was able to build stories and think externally with comedy and silliness. 

“It’s kind of funny because whether you are doing improv in a theatre, a room or a park rehearsing, it’s just a bunch of adults acting like children. I think there is a special kind of beauty in this,” Algie says with a smile on his face. 

After taking classes and learning what improv can do for your mental state, a switch got flipped on his way of thinking. Instead of being the one making all of the decisions, he became happier playing the role of the jester. 

“The king has to make all these hard decisions whereas the joker just gets to mess around all day and crack jokes,” says Algie before breaking into an impression of a king and his jester, complete with royal English accents.

Having applied what he has learned from improv to his everyday life, he knew he had to share with others how he overcame his own hurdles. 

After workshopping his improv for anxiety class around, he decided to start his own company called Play With Fire. He holds sessions that are explicitly for dealing with stress and anxiety. 

“It makes a big difference when you come right out and say, this is what the class is for,” he says. 

He brought this class to Second City after their sister troupe in Chicago started a similar program. 

Now he runs classes through Play With Fire and Second City, doing everything from corporate workshops to online classes, he wants to spread what he has learned with anyone who will listen. 

“I’ve had people from England reach out to me, saying they want to start their own classes,” Algie says. “Anyone who wants to pick my brain or learn the curriculum I am more than happy to share.” 

Looking to the future of what’s next for Play With Fire and Algie is a bit muddy. He wants to focus on the now, and not worry too much about getting bogged down in turning his passion project into a big monster looking to take over the world of improv. 

He just wants to help people who are going down the same dark roads that he rode for close to 30 years and use the tools that helped him get to a better place. 

“You can apply improv to any aspect of your life," he says. "The conversations we have — we improvise every word of it. For those who have anxiety or depression this muscle can use a bit of working out and that's where you can develop some wiggle room to find happiness.” 

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Joe McGinty

About the Author: Joe McGinty

Joe McGinty is a multimedia journalist who covers local news in the Cambridge area. He is a graduate of Conestoga College and began his career as a freelance journalist at CambridgeToday before joining full time.
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