One of my first drama therapy jobs was to create an arts access program for children with special needs at a non-profit community arts center in suburban Maryland. I integrated students with disabilities into regular drama classes and productions by helping teachers identify ways to make adaptations and accommodations that “leveled the playing field.” I created programming in special education classrooms for teaching social skills, self-expression, or an aspect of the curriculum. Theatre companies comprised of adolescent actors with and without disabilities created original plays dramatizing their own ideas. Some of this work could be categorized as educational drama, some as therapeutic drama, some as drama therapy, some mixed them all together.
The performing troupes were originally designed to be venues for disabled actors to explore issues of difference and to provide awareness education to non-disabled audiences. However, my actors had different ideas. They told me right off that they were sick of thinking about their disabilities because they had to deal with them “24-7.” They wanted to explore issues that were universal to adolescents like rebellion, responsibility, growing up, falling in love, being rejected, friendship and family. We created many plays together through improvisation. Each play became a metaphor for exploring their struggles, allowing them to fictionally explore and express their concerns, hopes, and dreams. Each rehearsal process became a laboratory for the development of better social skills, flexibility, responsibility, self-discipline, communication abilities, and the development of higher self-esteem.
Making Connections, a play about a video dating service, provided opportunities to explore appropriate dating behavior, first impressions, and unfair assumptions. During our improvisations, we explored all the WRONG ways to behave on a date and all the right ways. We practiced what information is appropriate to reveal to someone you just met and what is inappropriate. We role played anxious, overprotective parents waiting for their daughter to come home from a date and laid-back, gentle ones. In the play that resulted, one couple arranges to go on a date based on viewing each other’s video interviews, but the girl doesn’t reveal that she uses a wheelchair until they meet outside the restaurant. She wants to be chosen for her personality, not rejected on the basis of her disability. Her date has to get past his expectations of what he thought she would be like. Another girl chooses a guy who, unbeknownst to her, turns out to be a foot shorter than she is. At first, she is horrified, but later learns that he’s a wonderful person, no matter what his height.
Making Connections was later turned into an educational video for the purpose of modeling social and dating behavior to young people with disabilities and their parents. It won Honorable Mention in several video/film competitions, was shown on WETA, the PBS station in Washington, DC, and is still being marketed by Choices, Inc., a non-profit that sponsors educational videos for people with developmental disabilities. In the course of this adventure, the actors got to “film on location” and learned about acting “in the movies.” They had a chance to share their ideas and what they learned during our rehearsal process with a much larger audience. Self-esteem sky-rocketed when people who saw them on TV came up to tell them how wonderful their “movie” was and to ask for their autographs!
Parents report that the dramatic experiences their young people had in our performing companies helped them develop a greater level of independence, responsibility, and self-discipline than their peers who didn’t participate in drama. Most of my former actors are now middle-aged adults holding down full-time jobs and living independently in apartments. One job coach at a school-to-work transition program confided he could always tell which of his clients had been actors of mine: they had more self-confidence, better communication skills, and the self-discipline necessary for succeeding in the world of work.
© Copyright Sally D. Bailey, Registered Drama Therapist. All Rights Reserved.