IMPROV FOR PEOPLE WITH PARKINSON’S DISEASE
Margot Escott LCSW
Parkinson’s Disease (PD) is a movement disorder that affects up to 1 million people in the US and over 40 million worldwide. There are many other kinds of movement disorders, with over 40 million in the U.S.
Improvisational Theater Games, based on the work of Viola Spolin, are being used around the world with diverse people suffering physical and emotional issues.
PD is characterized by many problems such as facial rigidity (or masking), gait impairment characterized by a stuttering gait as well as anxiety and depression. Some of the Improvisational exercises we teach are directly related to helping these issues.
We do an exercise called “Show, don’t tell, your feelings” where students have to use facial muscles to portray a feeling. This exercise is important as students with facial masks need to practice using their muscles to indicate their emotions, as opposed to the usual lack of affect.
A typical session starts with singing a familiar song, with lyrics on a YouTube Karaoke video, easy to read. We teach “Yes, and…. “ in various games.
PD can be isolating not only for the individual with PD but for the family as well. In my weekly classes, participants play a variety of improv exercises each week. In these classes, participants get a chance to express themselves non-verbally through movement and music activities which aid in cognition and memory skills, improvisational games present fun challenges to solve.
I’ve been working with some of the same students for over the past eight years and they’ve formed a social support group, making dates to share a meal or go to an event. Our meetings have been virtual for the past few years allowing students from other parts of the country to join us!
We focus on the concept that there are no mistakes, only gifts. Students with PD, other movement disorders, and dementia often feel embarrassed or hesitant to speak, afraid of saying the wrong word or getting confused. Often their care partner shares the screen with them for tech support and will try to “correct” their loved ones. In a gentle way, I remind all players that there’s only one coach! From the first classes, students learn to raise their hands over their heads and say “ta, da” if they think they’ve made a mistake.
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 reality helps with the denial that often accompanies this disorder. This holds true for the care partners as they are often frustrated with the demanding schedules and role reversals. (PD is more common in men.) Allowing time for games, no one is pressured to speak quickly which supports those with vocal issues.
I teach mindfulness, which helps students learn to be in the here and now, so essential for improv play. It gives them time to slow down and calm their thoughts. I use many of Viola Spolin’s games like “Feel your Body”. One of Spolin’s quotes speaks to the importance of this.
If you can get it out of the head and into the body…Body, Mind, and Intuition. This is what we’re after. Body, Mind, Intuition” – Viola Spolin
Since we’ve been holding virtual classes since the pandemic, I’ve seen wonderful improvements in many of my students and am honored to work with these brilliant, genius improvisers.
As a clinical social worker, my job is to help people who suffer. Applied improv is a wonderful tool to help people living with behavioral issues such as anxiety and coping with chronic diseases, like PD. Discovering improv has not only benefited my life but those of my patients.
Boyd, Neva. Handbook of Recreational Games Paperback – June 1, 1975
Spolin, V. (1999). Improvisation for the Theater (3rd ed.). Evanston IL: Northwestern University. Stern, D. N., Sand
ABOUT MARGOT ESCOTT, LCSW
Margot Escott LCSW is considered a leader in the development and use of applied improvisational theatre techniques to benefit those with Parkinson’s Disease and other neurological issues. She presents her improv for PD teaching techniques at national mental health conferences throughout the country and teaches improvisational theatre classes locally for people with anxiety, PD, Care Partners, and children with autism. Margot hosts a popular podcast highlighting people who are using and researching improvisational theatre as a therapeutic tool — including Ed Asner — to benefit adults and children with anxiety, mental health issues, autism, PD, and more. Margot has been a social worker in Naples, Florida for over 35 years and has presented workshops on humor, laughter, and play for over 25 of those years. Since being introduced to improvisational theater, Margot has been performing and teaching improv to diverse groups such as people with neurocognitive issues like Parkinson’s disease, anxiety disorders, caregivers, children on the autism spectrum, and to therapists. You can learn more about her at Improv4Wellness.com.