Improv for Special People
Just like their neurotypical performing peers, people with disabilities who enjoy improv performing are hungry for opportunities. It is past time to accept that actors with disabilities can offer stimulating, thought-provoking performances.
Improv is about relationships and emotions, though comedy is often a byproduct. The desire to understand and develop connections in these areas is common to all people, including those with disabilities. Improv is one avenue where this is possible. It empowers people to move forward and helps break down barriers to communication.
To encourage this process, it’s important to have high expectations of performers with disabilities. Too often they become “aptitude casualties” due to a lack of respect for their abilities because the bar is set too low. Like anyone else, they should be expected to offer nothing less than their best. If the goal is a fully developed improv performer, it must be fully expected. No excuses.
Concise and clear expectations and communication will facilitate this process. It’s important to let the performers know what is expected of them. Break down directions into smaller sound bites, and give them time to assimilate the information. Be sure to allow time for questions, or have them repeat back the information in their own words to ensure mutual understanding. Build up to the full exercise by implementing it in pieces. Allow time to master one set of skills before adding to them. Discuss the exercises with the group and encourage alternative ways of thinking about them in order to help the group relate and understand expectations.
Often there are gaps in the abilities of improvisers with disabilities. Some are intellectual, some physical. There are various techniques available to help overcome these differences, such as shadowing, echoing, or partnering. These techniques can be implemented by the instructor and other facilitators or in a peer mentoring partnership. Having the instructor or others facilitate is more efficient, but peer mentoring can help the group develop stronger bonds and raise empathy and awareness. It also helps prevent overbearing or intimidating the performers. Mix and match techniques or pick the route that best relates to the goals of the group.
Finally, improv performers need an audience! Whether it's a group of family and friends, schoolmates, workmates, a regional or even national performance, it’s vital for the performers to have opportunities to show off their talent. It is, after all, the reason they work so hard to hone their skills.