Cantalopes make contribution to rehabilitation field

February 28, 2020 / by / 0 Comment
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Members of the Cantalopes Improv group have been collaborating with the staff at South West Advanced Neurological Rehabilitation. (Courtesy of Gisell Morales) 

By Ashlee Larrison
GCU News Bureau

It all started with the book “If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?: My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and Communicating” by actor and director Alan Alda. That gave speech language pathologist Patricia Backus the idea of bringing Grand Canyon University improv performers to work with staff and patients at South West Advanced Neurological (SWAN) Rehabilitation.

It’s a collaboration that Backus deems essential to the rehabilitation process.

Christina McSheffrey (front) is the captain of Cantalopes improv group.

“I don’t know anything about improv or theatre or anything like that, but I knew that this would be beneficial for the people that we work with,” Backus said. “What I knew would happen with Christina (McSheffrey) running it versus me doing it was that she has so many more tools in her toolbox than I do, and so she could see what was going on and could say ,‘Oh, here’s an activity that would work for this group.’”

The collaboration began during the fall semester. McSheffrey, the captain of the improv group, whose next monthly performance in Thunderground is scheduled for 9:30 p.m. Friday, March 6, and five or six Cantalopes start traveling to SWAN Rehab to help share improv techniques with the staff that they could later share with their patients. On their last visit, the Cantalopes got to work with patients themselves.

“There was a lot of laughter, which we don’t hear here a lot,” Backus said. “It was just a lot of relaxing and connecting, people being able to connect in ways they hadn’t been able to connect before.”

According to McSheffrey, the collaboration generates a similar level of positivity for the Canalopes as well.

“It’s really exciting,” McSheffrey said. “I’m a theatre major, so I’m just kind of trying to figure out what I’m doing, and this definitely feels very important and there’s definitely a need for it.

“There are people with Ph.D.’s that are contacting me wanting to work with me and I’m like, ‘Whoa, I’m just a senior in college.’ It makes me feel like I’m actually doing something worthwhile, which just makes my heart happy.”

The Cantalopes worked on constructing simple communication games and activities to bring an element of fun into a therapy session.

Patients and Staff at SWAN Rehab participated in improv activities and games. (Courtesy of Gisell Morales)

“Some patients don’t even have the ability to hold a regular conversation, so that’s the goal, to put people back into everyday speech, everyday life. But it’s also just getting people on their feet, having fun and just lightening up the room,” McSheffrey said.

The experiences she has received through both Second City, an improvisational comedy enterprise, and teaching improv at GCU helped make it easier to work with adults who normally have no prior improv experience. Training the professionals at SWAN was a bit more intimidating, but working alongside Backus and reflecting on Alda’s book made the experience smoother and more productive.

One important message the improv group has for patients is to remind them to avoid letting failure keep them from pushing themselves toward success.

“One of the cool things about improv is that there’s a lot of failure and there’s a lot of joy in the failure,” College of Fine Arts and Production acting instructor and improv advisor Michael Kary said. “For a lot of us outside of the improv circles, that fear that keeps us boxed in — even more so after an injury. Improv gets those neuro pathways to reconnect or start firing in a new way. They’re not memorizing ‘Hi, my name is blank,’ they’re working on thinking on their feet and taking in information and responding to it.

“The benefit to confronting that fear in a low-stakes environment, like an improv game, is that it makes the possibility of making a strange sound or awkward move something to take in stride instead of something to avoid.”

As a faculty member, Kary said the group’s enthusiasm and willingness to be a part of the SWAN collaboration is something he doesn’t take credit for, and he is proud to provide them the resources to keep doing it.

“There has to be something bigger that we (actors) do. It can’t just be getting a check for pretending,” he said. “I feel like being able to serve a community that I just don’t hear about being served in this way is a great way to connect Christ’s call to serve our neighbors. I’m super proud.”

Contact Ashlee Larrison at (602) 639-8488 or [email protected]

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