Yes, and: Improv Comedy and Parkinson's - PMD Alliance

How did I fall head over heals in love with Improv? Well, it all started with a little disease called Parkinson’s. You see, Parkinson Disease (PD) is very diplomatic – an equal opportunity type, as it can affected all parts of the body, mind, and spirit. At some point while living with PD, I knew it would affect my mental health and communication through diminished facial expressions, my voice becoming quieter, my creative imagination and endorphins depleting. I had to find an activity that would encompass all my concerns.

I thought of acting. The only problem with acting was memorizing lines, which would stress me out. I love to laugh. I love to laugh at silly thoughts that pop into my head, mishearing key words which completely change the conversation, and fun conversations while driving long distances. I had a light bulb moment! Improv! Improv fit all my prerequisites: you work on facial expressions, volume and clarity of voice, movement, positivity, creativity. Added bonus, it creates endorphins and community! And so much more.

At the beginning, it was not love at first sight. Zoom was in full swing because of Covid, so I went online and found a level one improv class on Zoom with Second City. The class consisted of mainly young adults. There was at least a 20 year age gap, I being the oldest one. I found the classes to be discombobulating because I could not understand the latest lingo and some of their expressions. They spoke too fast, and I could not understand them. This made Improv almost impossible. I was also cast as grandma, auntie, or old person for most of the skits. It was frustrating.

Fortunately, I found out that Second City had a program for people who were 50 years or older called Humor Doesn’t Retire. This program was not always available as they needed to find people who were over 50 to participate, but, as luck would have it, there were three other women who wanted to do improv. The four of us became fast friends from across
the continent, and we took the four remaining levels together. We called ourselves the Golden Bazooms, a force to be reckoned with. We meet monthly over zoom and sometimes play improv games.

The Bazooms were great – very caring and nurturing – but there was something missing. These wonderful women could not fully relate to my situation, like the urgency to stand up in the middle of a discussion because of sitting too long. An element was missing. So, I googled PD and improv. To my surprise and delight there was an established group, called Tightrope Theatre in British Columbia, Canada doing just that – improv with people who are living with Parkinson’s.

Wow! Was I falling in love?! Within the first ten minutes, I realized I had found my people! I just jumped right in, yes and-ing to everything. “Yes and” is one of three basics of improv, which is agreeing with your scene partner to move the story along. What fun it was to improv with others who had your back, who understood how PD effected my fellow improvers, like forgetting to take meds and the ramification of off periods. This is where I belonged. My fellow improv actors and instructors understood the nuances of this disease. They were patient, allowed time for responses, acknowledged those who took risks, and recognized there are no mistakes in improv. They made me feel like part of a team, and we were constantly laughing together! Out of this camaraderie, working and playing together, the first Canadian PD Improv Troupe was formed.

Those of us who were fortunate enough to attend the 6th World Parkinson Congress in Barcelona had our first in-person show: Tremors and Triumphs! We performed in Barcelona, alongside the 6th World Parkinson Congress, and not only that…the show sold out! The only thing that would have made it more perfect was to have the whole troupe perform as a full ensemble! It sure was an event.

So why did I fall in love with Improv? (Or maybe Improv fell in love with me!) It was because I’m so passionate about the positive effects it has on my whole being: from the tips of my toes to the highest strand of grey hair I have on my head. Yes, I’m working my facial muscles. Yes, and I’m working my vocal cords with voice modulation and articulation. Yes, and there can be funky movement and pantomime. Yes, and improved active listening, flexibility, creativity, spontaneity, joy, laughter, positivity, acceptance, freedom to just be…me.

Yes, Improv has changed my life’s outlook for the better. Yes, and…

Tightrope Theatre’s Improv for Wellness program brings the artform and skills of improv into communities to inspire connection, wellness, and growth. Our Improv for Parkinson’s classes use improv themes such as acceptance, co-creation, and celebrating mistakes and apply them to life with PD.

Curious about what an improv scene (especially over Zoom!) might look like? Check out this clip from Clara.

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