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Improv theater therapy: community partnership offers a new approach to chronic illness care

A grant-funded partnership between the M Health Fairview Achievement Center in St. Paul and Brave New Workshop is using the transformational power of laughter to help people with multiple sclerosis.
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Teresa McDowell calls her Thursday afternoon improv acting sessions the “best part of my week.”

McDowell, a 57-year-old from Eagan, lives with multiple sclerosis (MS), an unpredictable disease that causes nerve damage over time. Some people with MS are unable to walk. Others experience vision loss, difficulty speaking, or other symptoms.


To help manage those challenges, McDowell has regular appointments at the M Health Fairview Achievement Center. It was there, in 2019, that she began attending weekly improvisational theater classes hosted in collaboration with Brave New Workshop, a Minneapolis-based theater group.

Created to help people with MS and other neurological conditions or cognitive disabilities live their best possible lives, the M Health Fairview Achievement Center provides a variety of rehabilitation programs – from exercise to gardening to art therapy. Last year, the center received a Minnesota State Arts Board Partners in Art Participation grant, which allowed the center to form a year-long partnership with the Brave New Workshop to add the improv sessions to its offerings.

Improvisation – the art of making things up as you go – is a successful therapy tool for people with neurological conditions that affect their cognitive abilities, according to Darcy Hager-Slavin, supervisor of rehabilitation at the Achievement Center.

“We spend a lot of time with cognitive training using activities like naming states and capitols,” Hager-Slavin said. “When participants don’t have the answer, they shut down and no longer want to participate. Improv training shifts patients out of the mindset that an answer is right or wrong and lets them take risks and be vulnerable in a safe setting.”

During each session, a Brave New Workshop improv leader guides a group of people with MS through therapeutic games designed to slow down the progression of the disease. Participants stretch their thinking skills and creative muscles while experiencing the healing power of laughter

The response from their clients was overwhelmingly positive – so much so that staff at the center decided to recognize Brave New Workshop with a 2020 “Be the Change Award,” which honors an individual or organization for work to improve the lives of people with MS.

McDowell believes taking part in the improv sessions has given her more confidence and increased her sense of connection.

“No one where I live understands what I’m going through. It’s isolating,” she said. “Being part of the Achievement Center has enabled me to be with people who have a lot of the same symptoms I do and who are going through a lot of the same things that I do. Doing improv showed me that I still have a head on my shoulders, and that I’m smart enough to answer and deal with anything anyone else might say.”

What’s next for the Achievement Center?

The center will continue its partnership with Brave New Workshop through 2020, though some parts of the program have changed due to COVID-19 safety procedures. The center recently received another Partners in Art Participation grant to team up with MacPhail Center for Music to provide weekly songwriting classes and create an in-house choir. 

“We are thrilled to continue to provide creative offerings to our clients,” Hager-Slavin said.

“Brave New Workshop is amazing,” McDowell said. “It’s a lot of fun. Everything we did was different, and it was always something new. Making mistakes didn’t matter – we were always laughing.”

This activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund.



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