When you think of The Second City, you might think big names, bright lights and loud, roaring laughter. But for the world-famous comedy company, sold-out shows are not all they have to offer.
On a Friday evening, inside the theatre’s training center, several students trickle in for their weekly improvisational theatre class. This class, specifically, is for students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
The small group of young, male students are animated and lively as they warm up for class with games: one that requires them to memorize silly sounds and gestures made by the other students; another where they try to act out adjectives while moving around the room.
“At Second City, many people use improvisation to prepare for a career in comedy,” says Kerry Sheehan, President of Second City Training Centers and Education Programs. “That’s obviously what we’re known for, but the study of improvisation has a million other benefits both personally and professionally.”
Improvisation classes reinforce social skills that many people take for granted, such as effective listening, eye contact and making appropriate social responses, Sheehan says. While in class, she says students with ASD can practice social skills in a comfortable, non-judgmental environment.
Second City has been hosting their ASD-specific classes for just over a year. They offer them to both teens and adults.
“It’s a passion project of mine and the company really stands behind this initiative,” Sheehan says.
According to Sheehan, the training center changes very little between the ASD and mainstream class curriculum. The training center bases its curriculum off the teachings of the famous theatre educator Viola Spolin, who designed improvisation lessons for immigrant children in Chicago to help them acclimate.
Leading these classes are teachers Nick Johne, an alumnus of Second City’s training program and professional actor from one of Second City’s resident stages, and Molly Fisher, who has a degree in speech and theatre, and works in the field of special education.
Working His Way Up
Evanston resident Jonathan Shuman, 25, first enrolled in Second City’s ASD classes with the encouragement of his mother, Joelle Gabay, who knows how much her son loves movies.
While discussing this summer’s blockbusters, Shuman quickly fires off each of the movies’ directors, actors and film locations. His favorite website to browse is IMDb; his favorite movie is “Ferris Buller’s Day Off.”
Shuman says he wants to get a job as an actor, but he plans to start off with non-speaking roles.
“You have to start at the bottom and work your way up,” Shuman says.
Unfortunately for Shuman and others with ASD, “working your way up” isn’t always possible. According to a recent report by the AJ Drexel Autism Institute, among young adults with disabilities, those with autism had some of the lowest rates of employment and highest rates of social isolation.
Shuman is working to defy statistics. Gabay says her son leads a very independent, rich life. He lives in an apartment in Evanston through the community living options provided by Center for Independent Futures (CIF), a not-for-profit dedicated to helping individuals with disabilities live more independent lives. Through CIF’s assistance, Shuman has a job downtown where he works three days a week.
“He’s creative and always pushing himself to do new things,” says CIF Program Director Megan Baer.
Shuman volunteers in the summers at the Evanston Ecology Center because he loves the outdoors. He also attends creative writing workshops, where he says he loves to write about travel and movies.
“I don’t think he realizes how lucky he is to have all these things,” Gabay says.
After graduating high school and completing a three-year life skills program in Arizona, Gabay says her son returned home to live and had nothing to do and nowhere to go.
That is when Gabay heard about Center for Independent Futures.
Ann Sickon, CIF Executive Director and mother of a child with disabilities, says individuals with disabilities are not afforded the same opportunities as neurotypical individuals because they are often segregated from the rest of the community. CIF works to prevent segregation through its housing, employment and life skills programs, as well as social events.
“It’s really [about] creating opportunities and natural supports that allow them to become more and more a part of the community,” Sickon says.
Sickon and her staff strongly encourage residents to find opportunities out in the community and build relationships beyond CIF, like Shuman’s classes at Second City.
That much-needed sense of community is what Sheehan says makes Second City Training Center’s classes a success.
“At the end of the day, I can hear them laughing, so I always say at the very least these students are having fun and connecting with their classmates in a positive way, building friendships,” Sheehan says.