By David Dixon
Since 1999, the National Comedy Theatre (NCT) in Mission Hills has been primarily known for hosting many family-friendly improv productions. But in addition to its mainstage shows, the company has also helped create innovative improv programs, collectively known as Unscripted Learning, for educational purposes.
One of the Unscripted Learning programs, developed in conjunction with NCT, is Connections. This program benefits teenagers on the autism spectrum. Classes are conducted mostly at the NCT Training Center at Liberty Station, with occasional sessions in Mission Hills. NCT artistic director and Unscripted Learning Executive Director Gary Kramer, and Program Director Richie Ploesch are primarily responsible for Connections.
Kramer is known for his extensive history with improv, while Ploesch has worked in the field of special education for more than a decade.
Following an improv show two years ago, Kramer and Ploesch reflected on the different skills taught to autistic children and realized that improv students learn similar lessons to those taught to autistic people — lessons such as “eye contact,” “reading other people’s emotions,” “expressing our own emotions in an intelligible way” and “thinking like other people.”
A short while later, the two of them came up with the idea for Connections, and the program was officially formed and launched in the fall of 2017.
Students begin each day of a six-week program by sharing the positive things that have happened to them recently, then take part in various activities and games.
“At the end of class, we debrief on the whole day and students discuss what they took away from the activities,” Ploesch said.
Kramer, however, said he doesn’t want people to think that Connections is a typical improv class.
“It’s a social skills class using improv as a technique,” he said. “It’s a very different approach.”
One of Ploesch’s main goals is that his students walk out feeling more confident when conversing with others following the 90-minute classes.
“We want them to be more successful with social interactions with peers, family, classmates or whomever they come into contact with each day,” he said. “We’d like them to be more comfortable in different environments.”
Ploesch said he knows that having confidence is difficult for a lot of newcomers to the program, as some students can be overwhelmed simply by being at the venue.
“It’s a new environment, the lights are bright and there are a ton of seats in the back,” he said. “We want them to overcome their obstacles and use that in their daily lives as well.”
Because making new connections can be hard for many people, particularly those who are autistic, Kramer said he hopes students feel that they are part of “a group of friends.”
“Most of these kids are at class with their peers, who think similarly and have the same sense of humor,” he said. “One of the parents said to me that ‘We found our tribe.’”
While Kramer said he doesn’t want to seem too boastful about Connections, he is delighted with the positive feedback he has received from parents since the program began.
“More than a few parents have said this is the only program [their] kid wants to go to every single week,” he said.
As Connections continues to grow, Kramer and Ploesch plan on presenting several live shows with the students. These shows will be aimed at their families and also illustrate to the public how the students have improved since they started the program.
While there was a showcase presentation with the students last December, the intense preparation required has prevented Kramer and Ploesch from featuring one so far this year.
However, they’re hopeful that they’ll have more shows in the not too distant future.
Besides offering more classes and showcases, Ploesch would like to figure out new ways to help students in all parts of San Diego. Given how large the county is, Ploesh said he’d like to have more options for families in different parts of the region.
In addition, Kramer wants the program to expand beyond the county to Los Angeles, Orange County, Phoenix and other locations.
Connections aims to positively impact the lives of San Diego autistic children, and Kramer and Ploesch are enthusiastic about finding more ways to boost their students’ inner strength.
—A fan of film and theater from a very young age, David Dixon has written reviews and features for various print and online publications. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.