Improvisational theater games for people with Parkinson’s and caregivers

Improvisational Theatre Games for people with Parkinson’s Disease and their care partners is not just fun but therapeutic.

Parkinson’s Disease (PD) is a movement disorder that affects up to 1 million people in the US and doctors diagnose 60,000 new cases each year. Improvisational Theatre Games, based on the work of Viola Spolin, are being used clinically all over the world. Improv classes are being offered for stress management, Autism, dementia, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s and other neuromuscular diseases.

Neuroscience shows that the act of play is very important for adults. In the aging process, thinking may become rigid. Improvisational exercises help open up creativity and reconnect individuals with their playful, joyful selves again.

Parkinson’s Disease can be isolating not only for the individual with PD, but the family as well. In these six -week classes, participant’s work with partners and in small groups to play a variety of improv exercises each week, while learning about improvisational theatre principles. In these lively classes participants get a chance to express themselves non-verbally through movement and music activities.  To aid in cognition and memory skills, improvisational games present fun challenges to solve.

There is growing research on the therapeutic benefits of Improvisational Theatre Games for people with PD. The neurology Department of Northwestern University has partnered with Second City since 2015 researching the benefits of teaching improv to people with PD and their caregivers[1]. Their research showed that improvisational theatre games helps to cultivate focus, improve communication, and promote well- being.

Our groups have 8-10 participants. We begin by explaining Acceptance and “Yes, and…. “ We also focus on the concept that there are no mistakes, only gifts. Acceptance is an important concept as people with PD have difficulty accepting their disease. The idea that they don’t have to like it but rather accept the realty can be a way to help with the denial that often accompanies this disorder.  This holds true for the care partners as they too are often in denial. Allowing time for games, no one is pressured to speak quickly and others don’t try to “interpret” is also important especially for care partners as they become used to “doing” everything for their partner and often end up controlling and, in some cases, demeaning their partner.

I use a brief mindfulness exercise in all classes as it gives them time to slow down and focus on themselves.

Some of the games I use that are very effective and easy to learn are:

  1. Everybody Go
  2. Pass the Sound
  3. Show don’t tell (a feeling)
  4. Mirror
  5. Story Spine 
  6. Zip Zap Zop
  7. Three changes
  8. Gibberish vocal warm ups
  9. Gibberish Translator

Even if folks are confined to wheelchairs we can make accommodations. I’ve seen wonderful improvements in many of my students and am honored to work with these brilliant, genius improvisers.

Margot Escott, LCSW is a psychotherapist in Naples for 34 years and has been involved with Naples Parkinson Association of South Florida for over 20 years. She has received improv training from Gary Schwartz, Craig Price, Jimmy Carrane and Stephanie Anderson. She has taught and performed improv comedy including mental health practitioners and was recently a featured speaker in Chicago at the “First Annual Yes, and Mental Health Conference” in 2017. Her podcast, “Improv Interviews” is at http://margotescott.com/podcast/


[1] Laughter is the best medicine: The Second City improvisation as an intervention for Parkinson’s disease (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1353802016304321

Northwestern Medical partners with Second City for Improv for Parkinson’s

http://parkinson.org/blog/research/comedy-clinical-study