April is Parkinson’s Awareness Month. About one million Americans are affected by the neurodegenerative disease, and now, there’s an improv comedy troupe in Naples dedicated to people diagnosed with Parkinson’s and their partners.
On a Saturday night last month, at a golf course country club on a hill, members of the PD Inspiration comedy troupe (PD stands for Parkinson's disease) were getting ready for their first performance.
As the ballroom got more crowded, Ingrid Friesen got more nervous. Just a few years ago, before Parkinson's and a stroke, she was a lawyer.
"I was president of the bar in Asheville," she said. "And I was used to speaking in front of people."
Now, it's different, Friesen said. She speaks quietly, softly and slowly. Some of the hallmark symptoms of Parkinson's.
Friesen's husband, John Clabaugh, said she's been fretting.
"She was gonna back out on the way over here," Clabaugh said.
"I should be fine," she resolved.
Northwestern researcher Danny Bega did a pilot study about the effects improv comedy has on people with Parkinson’s. He said the idea came when he was casually talking to a patient.
“She had a diagnosis of Parkinson’s herself and she writes little songs and jingles that are sort of funny related to Parkinson’s and she was doing improv classes," he said.
So, researchers at Northwestern paired up with Second City—a renowned improv institution in Chicago that has birthed a number of famous comedians; people on Saturday Night Live and Stephen Colbert among others.
Bega said there are several treatments to deal with motor symptoms of Parkinson’s – things like the tremors. But there are few treatments to deal with the non-motor challenges of the disease.
“Those are issues like cognitive disorders, mood disorders like anxiety, communication difficulties, speech difficulties," Bega explained. "Just general sense of well-being.”
Bega said by the end of the study, in the area of activities and day-to-day function there were major improvements.
Bega’s hoping to expand the study and do more research.
In the last set of their first performance, PD Inspiration played a game they call gibberish. A person from the audience asks a question, one improv-er translates it to a made up language. The other improv-ers speak in that made up language. And the translating improv-er says what the gibberish improv-ers said in English.
Someone in the audience asked what the weather’s like in the place they come from. Suzanne Paley is the translator. The gibberish speaker is her husband Adam, who has Parkinson’s
Adam said something unintelligible.
"He says the weather is sometimes very nice ," Suszanne said. "And sometimes it’s just plain caca.”
The troupe’s grand finale was performing a national anthem in gibberish, giving them an opportunity to get up, sing, dance, be as wild as they want.
Friesen jumped up and down in a circle and yelled, her voice louder than it’s ever been. And shortly after, Adam got up after a few attempts and danced in place. His wife, Suzanne, watched his feet carefully.
The Northwestern researcher, Bega, said results like this aren’t unique to improv per se. People can get the same results through music therapy or doing yoga.
“So, I don’t think that there’s something magical, specifically, about improv itself,” he said.
The people in this group disagree.
“I think the magic is that you kind of get in the car, and you’re late every time and it’s been a hard morning and you get in with this group and we’re laughing our heads off," Friesen said. "And forgetting [our challenges] and feeling like a normal person.”
For others in the group, there’s magic in being able to do an activity together for the first time in years. And for a lot of them, there’s magic in knowing that it’s okay to make mistakes and be imperfect.