'Imagine the Possibilities': Teaching Improv to People With Down Syndrome
A couple of years ago I was staying at my friend’s house while traveling for work when a conversation with his wife led to a life-changing idea. She asked me how our nonprofit, which is geared toward enhancing the lives of those with Down syndrome by raising money through comedy events for various DS organizations, was doing. I told her it was going well, but that after five years the events were becoming harder to keep up.
At the time of our conversation, she was pregnant with triplets and had two other daughters under the age of 5. She told me she felt sad because it would be quite some time before she’d be able to work again. I asked what she would want to do if she could work, and her response changed my life.
“I’d love to teach kids with special needs improvisation,” she said.
She had a background in working with people with disabilities and in being an improvisation performer, but I still asked why it interested her. She looked at me with the most confident and inspiring look and said, “Imagine the possibilities.” Right then, I began to do just that. We talked more about the benefits of improvisation, and I kept the focus on people with Down syndrome since that was in my wheelhouse. Improv was also something I am familiar with having studied it for several years at Second City Theater in Chicago. The more we talked, the more excited I got. She gave me her blessing on stealing the idea, and I ran with it.
The reason improvisation intrigued me so much was because of those very possibilities my friend mentioned. I had been involved heavily in the DS community for a while. My son is 9. I had seen the missions of many organizations firsthand. I knew there was a growing emphasis on jobs and better workplace opportunities for people with DS. But it made me wonder what type of additional education and training would be available to fill those increased and better job opportunities.
Organizations had begun more life-skill training, vocational skill-building and job placement programs, but I didn’t feel we were addressing some key pieces to the puzzle. Who was going to help build communication skills like eye contact, poise and voice projection? What about thinking quickly off the cuff or adapting to changes or issues at work? How about working with a team or a partner? All of these skills would be key to a person securing the better job opportunities these organizations were trying to create and all were somewhat challenging to many of those with Down syndrome.
Improvisation. In my mind that was the answer to all of it.
These were the exact skills improvisation teaches and in a very fun way. So I enlisted the help of a ridiculously talented comic and improviser who I had worked with before and we created a game plan. We started slowly. For about one year we offered monthly classes to anyone with Down syndrome. We gained great insight into what worked, identified some challenges and experienced some great anecdotal successes. One performer in particular, who had a dual diagnosis of Down syndrome and autism, came to class basically saying just one word. After two improv classes, his parents told us how he couldn’t stop talking, expressed wanting to be an actor and was now more affectionate with people. I’ll admit, that was a lofty and unique experience right off the bat. But it was stories like this, and the many others where we saw smaller but important changes, that kept us excited with the improvisation program.
In March we upped the ante a bit and held auditions to cast the world’s first all Down syndrome improvisation troupe, named The Improvaneers. More than 20 people auditioned, and we ended up casting a group of 10 amazing performers committed to taking a two-hour class once a week. My partners and I create the lesson plans, run the classes, document the class through video and analyze the results to see what is working, what’s not and what needs to be tweaked.
In about 15 weeks we have seen huge moments of growth and even areas of regression. The troupe has nailed concepts we thought they wouldn’t and struggled with concepts we thought were simple. They have laughed a lot, cried, acted out, become emotional and been emotionless. Through it all the cast has formed a team with as strong a bond as I’ve ever seen. They are quick to support each other and never look to ridicule or get down on a struggling cast member.
Our goal is for the cast to continue with classes for a year, then perform a full show in front of a large audience. It’ll be complete with a red carpet and media. It’ll be amazing! The audience will walk away in awe of what they saw not because they saw people with Down syndrome perform improvisation really well, but because they saw people perform improvisation really well.
After the show is when our real work will begin. We will measure the successes and roadblocks to our program, with the goal of writing the book on teaching improvisation to those with Down syndrome and the importance of it. I believe we are on a thrilling, potentially game-changing ride right now and I am very optimistic on how it will turn out. Can you imagine what kinds of jobs could become available to those with Down syndrome? How could these new skills change people’s perceptions? Will we see the first SNL cast member with Down syndrome? We are going all in on our assumptions, with The Improvaneers leading the way.
Imagine the possibilities.