How Improv Helps People with Down Syndrome

A few weeks ago, I got an email from Rob Snow, the Executive Director of Stand Up For Downs, a non-profit organization based in Cleveland, OH, that is dedicated to helping people with Down syndrome.

Rob is a native Ohioan who studied at Second City, iO and The Annoyance in Chicago in the ‘90s before turning to Ohio where he got a “real job, real wife, and started a real family.” After having his second son, Henry, who was born with Down syndrome, in 2009, Rob became passionate about helping people with special needs live full and fulfilling lives.

Last year, Stand Up For Downs began offering monthly improv classes to anyone with Down syndrome over the age of 15, and now they also have a nine-person improv group called the Improvaneers that rehearses once a week and performs shows for their parents after each nine-week session.

Now, Stand Up For Downs is planning on offering training to other instructors on how to teach improv to people with Down syndrome and other special needs, so these kinds of improv classes can be offered nationwide.

I was so impressed with this initiative that I asked Rob to tell me a little bit more about his program and what his hopes are for it. Here’s what he had to say:

  1. How did you first come up with the idea for doing this?
    Our non-profit, Stand Up For Downs, has been around since 2013 with the mission of enhancing the lives of those with Down syndrome through humor. For the first five years, that meant producing comedy events that raised over $450,000 for various organizations within the Down syndrome community.In early 2018, I was talking with a friend who had done improvisation in the past. She had two girls under age four and three more girls on the way (triplets!). I asked what she would want to do if she wasn’t somewhat preoccupied for the foreseeable future. She said it was always her dream to teach improvisation to those with special needs. I asked why that was, and she said, “Imagine the possibilities!” It was like a lightning bolt had hit me. I got permission to steal her idea and the wheels began to turn immediately.

    I knew from studying improvisation at Second City, iO, and The Annoyance Theatre in the late 90s in Chicago that improvisation teaches so many valuable skills, like problem-solving, quick-thinking, teamwork, listening, building self-confidence, and communication skills like voice projection and eye contact. If these skills could be taught to those with Down syndrome, their workplace and social opportunities could expand greatly.

    So we began teaching monthly classes to anyone with Down syndrome in the Cleveland area over the age of 15. We saw such incremental results after only a few classes, so I thought, “What if we auditioned an advanced group and taught them weekly? What type of improvements would we see then?” So The Improvaneers were born in April 2018 after auditioning more than 25 individuals and casting nine to be in the world’s first all-Down syndrome improvisation troupe.

  2. How has improv helped the people who are involved?
    In the beginning of the program, I would use phrases like “ground-breaking” and “game-changing” to hype the program. After a year, I would say those are understatements. Our cast members have gone from looking down at the floor when speaking to looking people directly in their eyes. They have raised their voices to more audible levels. One of our cast, Nick Doyle, has seen his confidence grow so much he quit his job at a grocery chain he had held for 11 years, because he felt the job wasn’t challenging him enough and, in his words, “he deserved a better seat at the table.” He has since joined two non-profit boards, and a job is being created for him as “Chief Morale Officer” that will allow him to work in the office and be a part of marketing and sales calls with customers. Another cast member, Theresa Buzzelli, has had articulation issues that made it difficult to understand her. She started a job at Chick-Fil-a shortly after joining the cast. She worked in the back doing kitchen and dish duties in the beginning. Since being a part of The Improvaneers she has slowed down her speech and improved her diction. She now works up front greeting customers, refilling drinks and bussing tables. Her employees and several customers threw her a one-year anniversary party about a month ago. Each of the cast members has had similar experiences, and we are conducting case studies on each to prove the value of this program.
  3. What are your hopes for the program moving forward?
    We are now in the process of creating the actual program. The cast this past year has served as our “testing ground” on how this program can work. Now, my lead trainer, Maggie Bisesi, and I are creating the curriculum for three levels of the program – Introductory (Level 1), Improvaneer (Level 2), Performance (Level 3). We will also create a trainer certification that we will use to train any location directors in areas where we provide the program but can’t be there in person to do the training. Additionally, the program will include web training, monthly oversight and evaluation, and hopefully, an annual festival for all teams to perform.This program will be marketed to the Down syndrome community initially, then we hope to adapt it to all special needs.

    Ultimately, the hope is that as many individuals with special needs can benefit from the skills taught through improvisation and we can blow open the doors on social and workplace opportunities. This will also begin to change perceptions of those with special needs in a major way around the world so that they can get the respect they deserve.

  4. As a teacher how to do you approach improv differently with people who have Down syndrome?
    The unique part was how best to build the foundations of improvisation. What I’ve learned about Down syndrome raising our son Henry for 10 years is that they can accomplish so much more than we realize and nearly as much as a typical individual. It just takes more time, so repetition is a big factor as well as a bit more patience. Building the improvisation foundations was key to this program and figuring out which games/structures to use was critical. We referred to this as scaffolding, so we could start new layers once we had the strong layers below it.Another aspect you have with many individuals with Down syndrome is that they often have a love of performing. So, harnessing that love and finding the best way to show it was always a fun challenge and opportunity.

    Emotion is something to be very careful with. They can wear their heart on their sleeves in more prominent ways then most typical performers. Improvising a sad scene can trigger emotion very easily. They also feed off one another, so if one person is upset the other has sympathy pains for them and often then goes into their own sadness. It can be a domino effect.

    We were very careful to note those differences and they will play a prominent role in the manual on this program so those instructors we certify to teach a program have a playbook to handle these unique aspects.

  5. What is the most rewarding thing you have experienced since starting?
    The reaction from audiences who’ve seen them perform or heard one of my sessions about the program has been incredible and overwhelming. Once the audience sees them or hears the details and outcomes of the program, they quickly ask me when they can get this in their town.But the most rewarding personally has been seeing the growth! Watching someone unsure of themselves at first, walking out in front of an audience with their head held high unafraid to be 100% themselves. Hearing from their family and friends the way they have improved their social interactions and grown in the workplace is incredible. They are dreaming bigger now than they ever thought possible and all aspects of their lives are opening up to them more than they ever imagined.

Interested in trying improv for the first time, or want to learn a new approach? Check out Jimmy’s Art of Slow Comedy Level 1 class starting Sept. 18. Save $30 when you sign up by Sept. 4!