‘Improv for Transformation’ seeks catharsis in discussion of disability

Improvisation is not just for comedians; it can also be a powerful tool for social change.

On May 24 a group of volunteer actors performed “Improv for Transformation,” the master’s degree project of Anne Tyler, a graduate student studying conflict resolution. In collaboration with Shannon Barnes, a graduate student in clinical rehabilitation counseling, and Darcy Kramer, the accessibility specialist in the Disability Resource Center, Tyler’s project sought to use improvisation as a means of raising awareness of the misunderstanding and conflicts that arise around disabilities.

“I hoped the audience would take away a sense of the size of the problem that people with disabilities have to deal with on a daily basis,” Tyler said.

Tyler got the idea for this project from Portland Community College’s Illumination Project, which uses interactive theater as a means of exploring social justice issues and possible solutions. Yet unlike PCC’s version, which was scripted and rehearsed over the course of three terms, Tyler rehearsed for just one term with four student actors, and decided to use improvisation.

“For a pilot project in a very shortened time frame, I’m thrilled with what we were able to do,” Tyler said.

The performance consisted of five scenes inspired by real-life situations that had been witnessed or experienced by those involved in the project. The opening skit took place on a bus. A passenger began to aggressively reprimand other riders for not yielding their seats to a man with a cane. One of the passengers being reprimanded revealed that he didn’t do so because he has his own disability, and he was a military veteran who suffered from PTSD.

This scenario illustrated that disabilities are not always visible. “We don’t walk around with T-shirts and hats saying ‘I have post traumatic stress, or severe depression and anxiety,’” said Chad Chappelle, the actor who played (and is) a military veteran.

Kramer herself has invisible disabilities and has experienced this kind of situation first-hand. “When people interact with me they assume I’m fine. And I am fine,” Kramer said. “I also have disabilities.”

In addition, a well-meaning person can make false assumptions and actually perpetuate ableism and exacerbate tense situations unintentionally.

After the actors had performed each skit twice, with alternative resolutions to each conflict, they invited audience members to participate, becoming characters in the scene that attempted to resolve the situation in a new way.

“We hoped that the audience would learn about ableism and feel empowered to call people in for their ableist attitudes,” Darcy said. “Often we watch something happen and we’re uncomfortable and afraid to intervene. Stepping up on stage in front of an audience to intervene can be very empowering.”

And yet Tyler said they were not necessarily advocating for a best approach to any given scenario, instead they were simply offering multiple approaches and perspectives. “There’s no one way to resolve a conflict. There are lots and lots of ways,” Darcy said. And in some cases, there may not be a resolution at all.

It was also important to Darcy and Tyler that the actors not pretend to have disabilities. Thus the disabilities depicted by the characters were true to the actors performing them.

Often people don’t really think of how many people live with some kind of disability. Tyler explained to the audience that in the 2000 Census 49.7 million Americans self-identified as having some kind of disability—which is 19.3 percent of the 257.2 million people in the country—aged 5 and older. That’s nearly one-fifth of the population. And eventually, as we grow older, everyone’s bodies will break down, making this something we will all experience at one time or another.

The performance was followed by a period of questions and answers, during which the participants described the project as one of intense self-discovery and even catharsis.

“It eased my tension about working in groups,” said Myrlaviani Rivier, one of the actors and a master’s candidate in conflict resolution. “It felt really safe to share.”

Mara Romero, a student studying social work, was inspired by the project participants and said reenacting these situations was often emotionally challenging.

“As an aspiring ally in the fight for disability rights, being a part of this group was an invaluable learning experience for me,” Romero said. “It was an honor to work beside them as we discussed these often triggering topics and I was continuously humbled by their commitment to the project.”

Tyler echoed this sentiment. “The rehearsals and the performance brought the reality of discrimination to life for me,” Tyler said. “From a group of strangers at the first rehearsal, we became a team coming together for a common goal. The sense of belonging this provides is very powerful.”