This essay is republished with permission from Upstream Arts

A few weeks ago we were doing an improvisation exercise with a group that we work with a lot. The group, at a day program, is made up of adults with developmental disabilities, many of whom are non-verbal. The exercise was an approach scenario, as we call it, where one person in a room is very, very sad, and the person entering the room is disruptively, unapologetically, unceasingly happy. The purpose of the exercise is to see how your energy can affect other people’s energy either negatively or positively and to see ways to change one’s actions (not one’s mood!) to be sensitive to other peoples’ feelings.

This particular day I was feeling a bit down myself. I was playing the person in the room- the sad person. I usually like to play the very overexcited, overly happy person because it’s extremely fun to bounce off the walls over and over again and be obviously and inappropriately annoying (what this says about me I don’t know), but for many reasons- I had already played that role with the earlier group that day, it was now after break, more blueness had set in, etc- I was more than happy to sit in the chair and let gravity do its worst. One of the other TAs did the usual fantastically huge and obviously wrong first attempt, then came one or two participants, trying their part. And then came (as I’ll call her) A.

When I began at Upstream several years ago now, my memory is that- for whatever reason- it would have been more rare to have an essentially non-verbal person participating in a completely situational, usually verbal, improvisation like the approach scenario. Yes, No, I Don’t Know (an improv game where you can only use those words and for which we have assistive technology)- definitely, Moving Statues (an improv game without words where you react to your partner by physically demonstrating different emotions and moving closer or farther away)- of course! These and tons of other acting, movement, painting and even poetry exercises, clearly without a doubt, all the time! This is the point! But for whatever reason- be it usually more mixed groups where you’d want to give a challenge at that point of class to someone with more verbal capabilities, or perhaps just my own experience- before this moment in class several weeks ago, I had never participated in a typically verbal improvisation exercise with a non-verbal person.

A is essentially non-verbal, uses a wheelchair and has limited use of her hands. She makes a sound that sounds like the first letter of her name during intros at the beginning of class, and- famously funny in a somewhat faux bad-tempered and grumpy way- she makes a sound like “naaaawwww” frequently- sort of a guffaw, while turning her head as far away from you as possible, kind of like when a teenager is appalled by deemed embarrassing parental behavior. As she usually enjoys pretending that she might not want to participate, laughs in a way that suggests we are ridiculous (even though it’s quite obvious that she loves it!) or occasionally gets really a bit upset or frustrated when asked to come up to do an activity, I was really surprised that she raised her hand herself to volunteer this time.

What transpired was one of the most beautiful and special moments I have experienced in Upstream Arts- a simple, beautiful, clear communication using no assistive technology, or anything. A was wheeled in. We looked at each other. I looked away, sad. She sat there for a moment, then I felt a determined poke on my shoulder. I turned around. She just looked at me, slightly inquisitive, raised her eyebrows. “I’m just having kind of a rough day, A,” I explained. I turned away again. Pause. Another poke. I looked at her and she looked back for a long time, kind of smiled and then made a little shrug with her forearms and face. We really made eye contact, and her expression was such that I essentially heard her ask why without saying anything. I told her what it was- I don’t remember now exactly, something not terribly consequential- she listened, watching me, her face softening a little bit, not laughing or playing the clown or getting upset and wanting to end the exercise. She just listened to me. Then she touched my arm or made a concerned face or something else so out of character for her that I was blown away and can’t remember the rest quite correctly, but whatever it was I remember how it made me feel: better and a little teary-eyed. We sat there for a moment or two longer and then it was done.

I realize that this could sound a little funny- I work with an organization that does this as its function and I didn’t realize that this particular participant could do what she did. However it is true. I was taken aback by A that day. I was comforted in a way I had only previously been comforted by words, or another way of looking at it, I heard A speak. To be honest, before working with Upstream Arts and Interact (Center for Visual and Performing Arts) I was intimidated somehow by this kind of work. Since I began working as an Upstream Arts Artist several years ago I have had the amazing pleasure of working with and communicating with and laughing with and feeling with so many different people in so many different situations in their lives. I am grateful.

I have learned so much by working with Upstream Arts participants over the past few years. There have been countless beautiful examples. This is only one among many.