Feeling the feeling and finding the funny on stage

A group of men practice improv games on a stage.

 Pictured: the Improv for Parkinson's troupe practices onstage at Vancouver Theatresports. Image source: Dan Dumsha.

“I found myself going into a place of discomfort and finding comfort there,” said Larry Gifford, National Director of Talk Radio at Corus Entertainment and Global News and host of the podcast When Life Gives You Parkinson’s. On November 24, Gifford and other participants in Improv for Parkinson’s with Dan Dumsha took to the improv stage at Vancouver Theatresports to present skits and games to a packed room.

Improv, or improvisational theatre, is a style of unscripted, collaborative live comedy in which the show unfolds spontaneously as performers react to one another onstage. For improv to work well, participants need to engage in active listening, read each other’s facial expressions and gestures for cues, and support one another to land a punchline.

“It’s serving Parkinson’s more than Dan or I thought it could,” said Gifford, who has found many of the lessons learned in improv to be applicable to living with Parkinson’s disease (PD) and being a better communicator in general. “You really have to focus, and you can’t let your mind wander because you have to be present to set up your scene partner and help them land their joke.”

The program was facilitated by Dan Dumsha, local comedian and improv consultant and instructor, in collaboration with Dr. Jonathan Squires, his partner and a neurologist in the Movement Disorders Clinic at the Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health. The first cohort involved seven people with PD, who met for two hours over three separate sessions, followed by a live performance.

The program was inspired by a 2017 Northwestern University study on improv as a therapeutic intervention in PD in which people with PD participated in a 12-week program in collaboration with Chicago improv troupe and theatre, The Second City. 

“The sense of losing control in PD is something improv really speaks to,” said Dumsha. “Improv teaches you to roll with and build on unpredictability, which is something people with PD have to deal with.”

The training improv students receive in communication and expression onstage are helpful for people with PD, who can struggle with what Gifford calls “resting PD face,” or a lack of emotional expressiveness on the face.

“One of the big lessons in conveying emotion onstage is to use more than just your face—that’s a skill that’s helpful for people living with PD as well,” said Gifford. “Learning to be consciously, intentionally expressive and to feel the emotion before communicating it has given me a tent for the words, and letting yourself feel the feeling first ultimately serves the funny.”

Improv for Parkinson’s has been a pilot project, but going forward programming will be integrated with the BC Brain Wellness Program, and may inform research questions for projects on the horizon; researchers including Dr. Squires and Dr. Silke Cresswell have begun thinking about what activities like these mean for people with neurological disorders who have trouble making connections, or who struggle with loneliness and anxiety.

“We want to know more about how the troupe bonds and develops trust, and how people perceive the intervention and its benefits to the individual,” said Dr. Squires. “We can see moods lifting, and people making social connections, and so it would be valuable to quantify that from a research perspective.”

How does Larry Gifford quantify the individual benefit?

“I proved to myself that I can do it,” he said. And he did, and he was funny too.

Registration for improv classes with Dan Dumsha and the BC Brain Wellness Program are now open; visit the website at www.bcbrainwellness.ca for more information.

To learn more about When Life Gives You Parkinson’s, subscribe via Google Podcasts or Apple Podcasts, or follow along with the recaps (and bonus episodes) each week on globalnews.ca. The podcast is a part of Corus Entertainment’s CuriousCast podcast division, and is produced in partnership with Parkinson Canada.

To connect with Larry Gifford, follow him on TwitterFacebook, or Instagram.   

Pictured: a group photo of the inaugural Improv for Parkinson's troupe, who performed at Vancouver Theatresports on November 24, 2019. Image credit: Rebecca Gifford.