In high school, Audrey Costilow loved being in the spotlight, on the stage during school plays. When the now 25-year-old learned that there was going to be an improv group in her area, comprised exclusively of people with Down syndrome, she just had to audition.
“I thought to myself, ‘Hmm, would I want to try something new and go back on stage?’ I missed being on stage and thought I would try improv,” Costilow, of Amherst, Ohio told TODAY. Costilow made the cut and joined the improv group over a year ago.
The group, called the Improvaneers, started when Rob Snow combined his love of improv and desire to help the special needs community. His 10-year-old son Henry has Down syndrome and Snow had been hosting a comedy fundraiser, Stand Up for Downs, since 2013. But he wanted people with Down syndrome to have an opportunity to enjoy improv and comedy like he did.
“Improv teaches self-confidence, quick thinking, problem solving, teamwork and communication skills, like eye-contact and voice projection,” the 46-year-old from Medina, Ohio, told TODAY. “We could (expand) their workplace and social opportunities in ways that hadn’t been done before.”
Snow, who trained at a comedy club in Chicago, first started teaching a monthly class to people with Down syndrome and saw positive changes right away. That’s when he decided to create the Improvaneers, a weekly class for a group who auditioned.
Costilow was one of nine who was selected to join. While Snow wanted them to have fun, he also wanted to collect information on how the classes impacted them.
“I wanted it to be a very realistic and thorough investigation of what improvisation can do, specifically for those with Down syndrome,” Snow explained.
He worked with a child behavioral specialist to come up with measurements of how improv helped cast members’ social skills. He periodically filled out a survey and shared another with their parents for their assessment of their children's skills. Lisa Doyle, mom to cast member Nick Doyle, said even without the survey she noticed a difference in her son.
“It was subtle,” the 56-year-old from Canton, Ohio told TODAY. “He was more deliberate in his thoughts and communication … He started becoming more and more independent and taking ownership of his actions.”
Nick Doyle, 30, had been stocking shelves at a local grocery store for 12 years and while he took pride in his job, he realized he dreamed of a position where he could do more. He quit his job, became a member of two nonprofit boards and landed a job as an ambassador at Workshops Incorporated, a company that trains people with disabilities for vocational jobs, in Canton, Ohio — all thanks to the confidence he gained from the Improvaneers.
“That (old job) was beneath me,” he told TODAY. “The ambassador role is when they make sales calls and speak, communicate with the community and I would be the one who is going to do that.”
He is “excited and pumped” for his new position.
Both Costilow and Doyle participated in a part-scripted, part-improvised show on July 26 and 27 in front of two sold-out audiences. Both had to memorize lines and their parents were barred from rehearsal.
“The first time he brought this script home and we had to highlight all of the parts, I thought ‘Holy cow how are you ever going to learn all of this?’” his mom recalled.
But he did — and she loved seeing her son perform.
“I was a mess. I was so proud, balling my eyes out. This guy can do anything he sets his mind to,” she said.
Both Costilow and Doyle love being in front of a crowd and making them laugh.
“It just made my day when I saw (the audience) give a standing ovation,” Costilow said.
Doyle hopes his experience encourages others to “never stop dreaming.”
His mother agrees.
“People with Down syndrome are capable of anything,” she said. “I think Nick Doyle and Audrey Costilow can be the first people with Down syndrome on Saturday Night Live.”