At the auditions, the performers share their dreams of playing in a blues band or starring in a Broadway show. When the director asks them to act like superheroes, one leans forward with his arms flung wide like he’s flying. Another flexes both arm muscles as if to show her strength.
The performers all have Down syndrome, and they are seeking to be a part of what director Rob Snow says with tongue-in-cheek humor is the world’s first improvisational theater group for people with the genetic disorder. (It’s unclear whether similar groups exist.) The nine Ohio actors who make up the Improvaneers perform improv and sketch comedy to increase their confidence, improve their social skills and have fun.
“When I started thinking about the tenets of improvisation and what it actually means and what you could learn from it, it felt like this is a missing link to the disability community,” said Snow, 46.
A comedian by training, Snow said he knew that improv teaches problem solving, quick thinking, confidence and communication. If people with Down syndrome could improve those skills through comedy, he said he thought professional and personal doors would open to them.
Although improv is not often used to improve the social skills of people with Down syndrome, it is a common teaching mechanism in other parts of the disability community. Several improv programs recruit people with autism to help them better understand relationships and social cues.
Snow’s expertise is in the Down syndrome community, which he joined after his son Henry was born with the condition in 2009. He and his wife started a nonprofit organization, Stand Up for Downs, in 2013 to host comedy events as fundraisers for Down syndrome organizations.
Snow used about $50,000 of the money the organization raised to launch the Improvaneers at no cost to the actors. He said the group earned $17,000 from two public performances in July. He also plans to continue funding the improv troupe by applying for grants and beginning to charge the performers for their training.
The actors will also earn money for any future show for which the troupe gets paid, Snow said. Each of four cast members will be paid $500 for a performance they will put on for a private organization this fall. There are no shows scheduled for the public.
Twenty-five teenagers and adults with Down syndrome auditioned for the Improvaneers in March 2018. Nine of those actors then trained free for two hours each week at the Weathervane Playhouse in Akron. They presented their half-sketch-comedy, half-improv performance at sold-out shows on July 26 and 27 at a cost of $20 or $30 per ticket.
Henry also acted in the Improvaneers’ performance and became like the cast members’ little brother, Snow said.
“I wanted people to see the show and not walk away like, ‘Oh, that was cute. They all have Down syndrome,’” Snow said. Instead, he said, he wanted them “walking away like, ‘Oh my god, what did we just see?’ … Perceptions blown, minds blown, awareness levels raised — that kind of thing.”
With a father and an older brother who were professional musicians, Lisa Doyle said her son Nick has the performing arts in his blood and was excited to join the Improvaneers. Nick Doyle plays a superhero in his favorite sketch, “Catching the Grinch,” in which his character tracks down the grumpy creature and brings him to the nearby town to face his punishment for stealing Christmas.
Comedy, Doyle said, makes him feel “like a rock star.” He credits the Improvaneers with giving him the confidence to switch from his longtime job stocking grocery-store shelves to his new role as an ambassador at a disability services provider, where he feels his contributions are more valued. He also recently joined the boards of two nonprofits that advocate for people with disabilities.
Lisa Doyle said performing with the Improvaneers has helped her son to become more focused and deliberate when talking with people, especially authority figures.
“It’s like, yes, he could ride a bike when he came to the Improvaneers, but now he’s riding a bike and doing wheelies,” Lisa Doyle said. “He’s really honed some of those skills and areas.”
Snow has developed three ways to measure performers’ growth: surveys of cast members and parents, documentary case studies of how the performers’ lives have changed and an evaluation form developed with behavioral scientists at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. Snow and the behavioral scientists rated the actors on skills including eye contact, voice projection and problem solving when the actors started the six-week program, and again a year later.
“I was trying to use improvisation to build skills that will … give them different jobs that up until now haven’t been available as much to people with Down syndrome — so instead of just stocking and sorting, now they can manage and lead and create,” Snow said.
Teaching improv to people with Down syndrome is different from teaching improv to neurotypical people, Snow said. A performer with Down syndrome might need a break after playing a game that requires them to act out an intense emotion. Some people with Down syndrome also have physical limitations or maturity levels that are different from what is typical for their ages.
“That is what differentiates our program — knowing those nuances,” Snow said.
In addition to performing for private organizations, Snow said the Improvaneers’ plans include selling the program to organizations across the country. Starting in January, he said, representatives from the Improvaneers will go to those groups’ locations and teach their staff the curriculum.
Before she joined the Improvaneers, Audrey Costilow dreamed of returning to the stage. She had learned improv at her high school in Amherst, Ohio, and missed performing. Costilow, 25, said she has now found a family in her fellow cast members, who lift each other up through small struggles, like forgetting their lines, and big ones, like losing a relative to cancer.
“They’re like family to me, and I love them,” Costilow said. “They are one whole team.”
The Improvaneers, Costilow said, have helped to improve her confidence and eye contact. In her job as a clinical technician at a hospital, she said she has learned to approach her bosses and offer to help without shifting her eyes like she used to. Costilow’s mother, Cheryl, said her daughter also was chatty with people who stopped by the fundraising table they manned at a local farmers market this year; last year, she was quiet.
Costilow is practicing a monologue for the Improvaneers’ next performances. It’s about making piñatas, she said, but that’s all she can reveal. Anyone who wants to know more will have to see the show.