True to form, Ohio-based improv group the Improvaneers, with a cast comprised exclusively of people with Down syndrome, are saying “yes, and” to bringing a fresh perspective to the improv comedy world.
On paper, the Improvaneers began in April 2018. However, according to Improvaneers founder Rob Snow, the idea to create a comedy group for people with disabilities started a little earlier. While visiting a friend, she told Snow her dream was to teach improvisation to people with disabilities. Snow, who has a son with Down syndrome (DS) and founded the nonprofit Stand Up For Downs, got permission to run with the idea.
“We auditioned over 25 individuals with DS over the age of 15 and ended up casting 10 of them,” Snow told The Mighty. “That troupe became the Improvaneers and the first all Down syndrome improvisation troupe in the world.”
Once the Improvaneers’ cast was set, they got to work learning the foundational skills of comedy improv. The performers, who quickly bonded, met two hours every week for more than a year to build what Snow calls the “scaffolding” needed to perform compelling improv games. As the group practiced each week, they developed their comedic skills, sketches and performance skills.
Snow, however, had another motive for working with a group of people with Down syndrome. He trained in improv comedy at Second City Theatre in Chicago, ImprovOlympic and the Annoyance Theatre. Learning the skills needed to perform comedy on stage and collaborate with others could lead to other opportunities for people with disabilities — and he wanted to prove it.
“I knew if we could build the skills that improvisation teaches — problem-solving, quick-thinking, self-confidence, voice projection, eye contact, teamwork, and much more — then we might be able to greatly expand social and workplace opportunities for those with DS,” Snow said. “If we really wanted this program to lead to more workplace opportunities we had to prove its effectiveness in several ways.”
Snow worked with a psychologist at the Thomas Center For Down Syndrome at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital to develop formal evaluations of the skills and growth each Improvaneer developed during their training. Across the board, the Improvaneers showed progress in key skill areas, especially communication skills and confidence. The evaluation also included speaking with cast members’ parents and “doing full case studies on each cast member to talk with their employers, parents and the cast member to see how this program has affected their job performance.”
The benefits of participating were clear to the cast members almost immediately. Improvaneer Nick Doyle, for example, found performing improv boosted his confidence. Snow shared Doyle quit his long-time job at a grocery store and took on an ambitious position to help others with disabilities find jobs.
“I love being on stage with my castmates performing. I love when I get laughs from the audience. It makes me feel like a rockstar,” Doyle told The Mighty. “The training has helped me improve how I work with others and pay attention to what they are doing and saying.”