Jenna Pomykalski was excited about playing Wendy in the Special Gifts Theatre Group’s production of Peter Pan. Theatre has been a part of her life since fifth grade, and after graduating from New Trier High School in Glenview, Ill., she joined Special Gifts in Chicago. Acting isn’t just a hobby for Pomykalski: As someone with Down Syndrome, she has found that theatre has helped her gain confidence, resolve tricky social situations, and learn to cope with disappointment in a safe and supportive environment.
According to “Drama and the Education of Young People With Special Needs,” an influential 2011 academic paper by Andy Kempe, drama can be therapeutic in giving a person a “greater sense of competence in the activity being focused upon, resulting in heightened self-worth.” Being actively engaged in this social and collaborative art form can give one a sense of belonging to a group, which is especially important to people who may feel excluded from mainstream society. The social aspect of theatre can help build skills that individual activities such as crafts or art therapy may not be able to provide.
According to Elise Larsen, executive director at Special Gifts, theatre has three main aspects, which she calls “tenets,” each of which helps develop specific skills: singing, acting, and dancing. “Most people prefer one tenet over another,” said Larsen, whose theatre runs an educational therapeutic theatre program for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. This helps them build confidence and increase self-esteem by starting in a comfort zone, then moving on.
“Someone who might be really anxious or nervous or lack confidence might have trouble initiating conversation with another peer,” Larsen said. “However, when they’re a character and they’re given a line to say, they can start that initiation process and practice those skills in the theatre setting, and then have the confidence to take them off the stage and out into their everyday life.” The program partners each of these students, typically with a developing peer, in addition to a peer mentor.
As COVID-19 spread across the United States, the social aspect of theatre and theatre training faced challenges, as most organizations shifted programming online. As a result, students like Pomykalski now spend their time taking their classes online and doing their activities through platforms like Zoom.
At Theatre Horizon, a theatre therapy center in Norristown, Pa., the shutdown occurred in the middle of the Autism Drama Program, which helps students on the autism spectrum develop social skills, verbal expression, empathy, and self-worth, according to Mackenzie Kirkman, an educator with the program.
“Giving our students a sense of routine, especially when we first had to close classes, was really important to us,” Kirkman said. “In the face of so many things changing, we thought that even though switching to Zoom would be a huge adjustment, our students would still benefit from the time to work creatively and see the teachers and classmates they’d gotten to know over months and often years.”
A big concern for theatre educators was ensuring that online learning was manageable and accessible for their students. They had to consider what computer skills they could expect from young students and their parents, and to be mindful that they were as inclusive as possible to nonverbal or partially verbal students.
Classroom lessons rely on a lot of one-on-one interactions with teaching artists and volunteers in order to use mirroring and physical communication along with verbal communication. Adapting the Autism Drama program for Zoom took some adjustments, like adding some basic universal hand gestures—raising their hands for bathroom breaks, for instance, rather than telling a staff member, as they would have done in a contact class. Staff also check in with students if they feel they’ve been particularly quiet or aren’t participating as they otherwise would. While in-person classes relied very heavily on volunteers, the Zoom sessions involve parents and siblings more in the learning process.
While some in-person games don’t translate to a digital platform because they are so heavily reliant on physical interaction, educators keep looking and experimenting with ways to adapt their favorite activities. One such adaptation: a virtual theatrical scavenger hunt. Students were guided to look for things in their homes, such as a hand towel, and would come back to the screen and use the hand towel as a prop to creatively act out an action, while, as in charades, other students had to guess what they were doing.
Being able to maintain a similar structure of name games, lessons, and closing practices has also been helpful to the Autism Drama program at Theatre Horizon. They did their best to stick to the usual routine and even managed to keep up a tradition of dancing together at the end of a session while one student sang.
Special Gifts had a slight advantage, since they had already finished most of their performances for the spring season. Still, they understood the importance of continuing to meet and rehearse. Peter Pan was a part of Special Gifts’ Creating Outside the Lines program, which works with adult students to develop skills like self-awareness, social engagement, and problem-solving techniques. Once the shutdown began, the program planned activities like “dress up as your favorite character,” a virtual dance party, and a virtual scavenger hunt.
Molly Martino, a 22-year-old student with Kabuki syndrome who has involved with Special Gifts for the past five years, played Nana the dog in Peter Pan. She misses it terribly, according to her mother.
“Molly really looked forward to going to Special Gifts Theatre, both to see her friends and to be part of something,” said Heather Martino. “She looked forward to it culminating in a show that she very much felt a part of. Sometimes at night we drive by the school where SGT is held and wave to our friends, even though they are not there.”
Pomykalski and Martino hope to return in the fall to play Wendy and Nana again.
Shrishti Mathew is a Magazine, Newspaper, and Online Journalism graduate student at Syracuse University.
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