Steve Yeary, a big man with a big voice, recently and happily acted like a crybaby cab driver running for president.
When asked, he’ll gladly re-enact that improv character: a combination of infantile wailing and vote-wrangling in rapid combination.
Yeary is part of an improv troupe at the Clark County Homeless Coalition, where he is a resident of the Wainscott House, a shelter that can house 15 people.
The weekly class is something Yeary looks forward to. “It gives you a chance to laugh at each other but not in a mean way,” said Yeary, who has lived at Wainscott for about six months. “It also gets you out of your comfort zone.”
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One of the basic rules for improv is “always say yes.” And when local pastor Ryan Bradney suggested an improv troupe for the coalition clients, executive director Terry Davidson said just that.
Now, once a week, folks who are staying at the shelter or getting support from the nonprofit while rebuilding their lives meet for an improv class. And for an hour, they can concentrate on laughter, working together, listening and being heard. Word of the coalition group has spawned a community troupe, that is performing a benefit Saturday. The money will go to the shelter.
“I know our residents have a lot of stress in their lives,” Davidson said. “They really need to see that it’s possible to still laugh.”
The Clark County Homeless Coalition was formed in 2009 and opened a transitional housing program in 2011. Davidson said the shelter is one of the few in the state that allow men, women and children under one roof, so families can stay together.
The organization helped 200 people last year, and the waiting list for housing is long and ever growing, she said. The nonprofit serves Clark, Powell, Estill and Montgomery counties. It offers not only housing but case management, education, and help in obtaining medical, dental and child care.
So, when people have so many needs, why spend time and energy on something like improv?
Davidson has a philosophy of using people’s gifts to their best advantage, and Bradney has a gift for improv.
Bradney, who is pastor of Winchester’s First Presbyterian Church, grew up in Illinois. He had a high school teacher who taught improv, and Bradney did improv in college. It’s a way to relieve stress and practice life skills, he said.
“It changed my life,” he said. “It helped me see I was someone who mattered.” And improv allowed him to “see the arts beyond entertainment.”
Throughout the class on a recent Thursday, between the actors pretending to be presidential candidates with strange quirks or unruly middle school students ignoring a lesson on dinosaurs, there was a lot of talk about the importance of community and problem-solving.
With Bradney acting as moderator, it felt more like play than preaching. Among the improv acts are two shelter volunteers, both named Janet. Janet Ballard said she wasn’t especially sold on improv when she started.
“I’m actually pretty shy,” Ballard said. “I didn’t really want to come back after the first time.” But Ballard, who carries herself in the real world with the warm, reserved air of a Southern lady, portrayed a pretty convincing middle school bully during class.
The give and take of improv has benefits outside of class, Bradney said. It helps the clients connected to him and the volunteers open up about their struggles and work through problems.
For Yeary, it’s a chance to return to a passion of his youth. As a teenager, he said, he often participated in skits and productions with his church youth group.
The homeless tend to feel invisible, Bradney said. Out on the streets, even in a place as small as Winchester, people tend to look past them, not at them. Roaring like a wild beast in a skit about animals in the woods “gives them a chance to be heard in a way they have never had before.”