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Updated: Jan 20, 2021

In the world of improv, as I am beginning to understand from my improv to improve Parkinson’s disease (i2ipd) class, saying or hearing “aaaa-ooooo-gaaaa” signals that it’s time to laugh. Time to give yourself a break, time to let go, time to stop trying so hard to figure things out ... and maybe even more: It may also be time to give your community a chance to be there with you and for you, to give them a chance to laugh with you, play with you and work with you. Imagine ... a big breath and a hearty “aaaa-ooooo-gaaa” can do all that!?!

Just when might one say “aaaa-ooooo-gaaaa”? When we go blank. Or we feel stuck. Or we’re not sure what to say or do. “Aaaa-ooooo-gaaaa” is the place to go. I am learning that joyfully and playfully shouting out this goofy word just in those moments can have life-changing benefits.

Really? Why? Because sometimes we need a reminder that it’s all okay. Whatever it is. It doesn’t need to always make sense, it isn’t always right, and it isn’t always wrong. If we can bring the complete openness and freedom that is the world of improv into the rest of our world, even if our world includes something like Parkinson’s disease, the gift of laughter and relaxing into the moment can help us manage what might otherwise seem just too overwhelming.

What does saying “aaaa-ooooo-gaaaa” feel like? Silly? Embarrassing? Funny? Fun? Impossible? Yes, all that and more. What has i2ipd taught me about the effect of shouting out this silly word? That saying it feels like a celebration.

Whaaaat??? A celebration??? Why yes!

Improv teaches us that when we celebrate what feels like failure or fear or anxiety, when we say “yes, and …”, we open up. When we do that, we give ourselves a moment when we can laugh. What better way to poke a hole in whatever it is that has us stuck than laughing? At the very least, laughter interrupts negative energy and gives our inner mentor a chance to remind us of our options. Bend the rules! Throw the rules out! Say “schlemiel, schlemazel, hassenfeffer incorporated” if we want to! Apparently, there is no right or wrong in classic improv, it’s just what happens in the moment. If we’re open to it, magic can happen. The only thing we can’t do is allow ourselves to get hung up by a notion that if we get stuck, we have failed. (Robert's note: "Technically you can do just kind of sucks as an option.")

An example: in what may or may not be Parkinson’s-related, I was recently reading a book and I couldn’t remember the name of the author. At one point, the author was recounting a conversation he had with someone. He used his initials and the other person’s initials as designators of who was speaking. The author’s initials were M.G., right there on the page, giving me the biggest hint possible as to his name. For whatever reason, I could not come up with it. I was determined to find it, though. I remembered the title of the book, I even remembered titles of other books the same author had written. I tried and tried. I could feel my frustration mounting. I said to myself, “Is his first name Michael?“ No, I didn’t think so. “Is his last name Gardner?“ No that wasn’t right either. I was trying too hard. I was making myself nuts.

What was the guy’s name? Finally, when I could actually feel tension building up, I gave myself a break. After all, this was hardly a life and death issue. Remember, I had the book in my hand and I could have easily looked at the front cover. So when I felt that tension, I remembered the lessons of “aaaa-oooo-gaaaa” and I laughed.  As soon as I started laughing, even though I hadn’t quite yet said “aaaa-ooooo-gaaaa”, the benefit of letting go washed over me and the name Malcolm Gladwell popped into my head. Of course! It was Malcolm Gladwell who wrote Talking to Strangers, the book I was reading. Of course he did! Was that a PD-related memory event? Who knows, but if I allowed myself to feel fear or anxiety about the fact that it might have been, I would’ve been even more stuck than I was.

A silly “aaaa-ooooo-gaaaa” can be a catalyst toward letting go and relaxing into the moment. If I can give myself that opportunity, I have a chance of discovering that just being, just playing, just being responsive, just being part of a community, and just living in the moment can give me the opening I need.

And so the response to “aaaa-ooooo-gaaa” must surely be “Yeeeeee-haaaaaaa!!!” Or maybe it’s “YESSSS … and …” Or who knows, maybe it’s “schlemiel, schlemazel, hassenfeffer incorporated”!?!?!

Susan Scarlett was diagnosed with PD in 2015. Among other recent accomplishments, she is a Producer for the award-winning documentary, Victory Swim.

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