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Karen Snyder, Improbable Players

Karen Snyder, Improbable Players
Since 1984, traveling theatre troupe, Improbable Players, has been igniting conversations around addiction and alcoholism through performance and student workshops by actors in recovery. We were excited to learn that this Boston-based theater company will be starting a new Cleveland chapter in 2019. Shortly after moving back to Ohio from Boston, theater artist, Karen Snyder, knew Cleveland was a prime candidate for this work. “Improbable Players ties in performance and recovery, which is where my heart lies. It was clear the opioid epidemic was hitting Ohio hard, so I knew we needed to bring this work here,” says Snyder.

As the new Ohio Regional Director of Improbable Players, Karen is taking on this work with a renewed vigor and sense of purpose. The company is looking forward to presenting pieces like End of the Line for Cleveland audiences, which she says, “explores how addiction starts, from casual use to opioids. This is the company’s first piece that really tackles the opioid epidemic.”

February 2019 will mark the troupe’s anticipated Cleveland Tour. First, auditions for sober actors in recovery will be on February 14th and 15th, 2019. Then the Boston troupe will be in Cleveland, February 19th-22nd to perform free shows for schools and the community. The Cleveland chapter will be ready to go into schools by the beginning of March 2019.

Q. Can you briefly describe your work?
A. Improbable Players uses theater performances & workshops to address addiction, alcoholism, and the opioid epidemic. Our 25 to 45-minute performances are always followed by a talkback and Q&A session. Our workshops give students the space and tools to combat social pressures and find coping strategies that work for them. The plays are based on true stories and are performed by people in recovery. Our work is appropriate for 6th grade and up.

Q. Where does Improbable Players perform?
A. As a traveling theatre troupe, we perform in schools and non-traditional settings including treatment centers and at conferences. We also conduct workshops in partnership with schools, which are more intimate. Typically, a teaching artist will work with a group of about 25 students and discuss the latest information and finds about substance use disorder. During the workshops, we allow the students to create their own scenes around alcohol and addiction.

Q. How were you introduced to your craft?
A. I was in middle school when I saw my older brother, in high school, act in ‘The Fantastics.’ I admired his acting and loved the idea of performing on stage. I pursued a B.A. in Theater at Susquehanna University. Because of my drinking throughout college and after, when I moved to Boston, I stayed away from performing until many years into my sobriety. My good friend, Chris Everett Hussey, who is now the Co-Director in Boston, invited me to perform with Improbable Players, which was very impactful. Being back on stage and sharing my recovery with students helped me see how this organization gives back. That’s why when I moved back to Ohio I knew we needed a Cleveland chapter of Improbable Players.

Q. Can you talk a little bit about your acting style? What roles or characters are you most interested in depicting?
A. I connect with characters that have real substance, those who have a lot of compassion and those who portray strong friends and family members. This closely ties in with my work through Improbable Players. In my own performances with the Boston chapter, I found that depicting an alcoholic or addict is very personal. Part of what makes this work so effective is that I bring my own experiences to the role of the character and am able to illustrate how painful it is to be an alcoholic and addict. Playing these roles really allows people to see that the characters are real people and have real feelings. There are still so many misconceptions that addicts are bad people, but depicting these roles through theater gives audiences an opportunity for real connection and helps foster empathy and understanding around substance use and addiction.

Q. How do you feel your work affects your audience?
A. Improbable Players helps to change the perception of addiction and alcoholism in our audiences. Anyone who knows a friend or family member with an addiction, or feels they may have a problem themselves, can identify with our performances, which are based on real life experiences. It shows audiences, especially students, they are not alone and help is available.

Q. Why do you feel theater is such an effective vehicle in communicating issues of addiction? What makes theater and performance specially suited in this arena?
A. Performance and theater are engaging to audiences, especially students. We’re able to capture students’ attention much more with a performance rather than a lecture, especially on such a serious topic. In the plays, we enact scenarios that students have seen or heard about in their lives. So witnessing this is a reminder to them that these things are happening to so many people and these aren’t isolated issues. We also make a point of adding elements of humor and lightness to a really heavy topic. If it’s just heavy content, students can often become overwhelmed. Those comedic moments help them feel like it’s okay to laugh at some of the crazy situations a lot of us are dealing with. The element of laughter also helps create an open and safe atmosphere for discussion and conversation.

Q. Who are your long-standing influences?
A. My brother and mother have been large influences for me, as well as my grandfather and also my theater professor from Susquehanna University. I admired my brother’s acting and directing over the years. He showed me what bravery and determination looked like on stage. My mom, who passed away over a year and a half ago from Ovarian Cancer, was always supportive of my artistic endeavors over the years and especially my recovery. My grandfather was a Presbyterian minister who always had such wonderful stage presence when he gave a sermon. I felt engaged and inspired by him. My theater professor, Doug Powers, showed me compassion, direction and light heartedness in my theater classes and performances. He gave me the role of Regina in ‘Little Foxes’ my senior year which provided a gift of self-confidence and creativity in my acting.

Q. Describe your idea of artistic success.
A. Providing engaging work where audiences can identify and feel moved is artistic success. Being a part of Improbable Players, accomplishes creatively giving back, sharing a sense of belonging and hope.

Q. What is your process for generating new ideas?
A. Talking about it with others helps me the most. In 2015, I co-wrote and co-directed a play with my good friend, Brian Schwartz, which was performed at the DC Fringe Festival. We bought a journal that said ‘Gratitude’ on the cover at a bookstore/coffee shop, sat down and each of us wrote one line at a time, passing it back and forth to each other. In a year or two, the Cleveland chapter of Improbable Players will hopefully write a new show which will be a collaborative process with the actors.