As someone who is a strong proponent for autism awareness, I was very intrigued by the drama classes that the Paper Mill Playhouse is offering to kids with developmental disabilities this month. So I reached out to Theatre School Director Mickey McNany about the program and she graciously told me about the program to share with BWW readers.
BWW: Can you tell us how the idea of classes for kids with disabilities came about at Paper Mill?
Mickey McNany: It was a wonderful combination of events. At my granddaughter, Mary’s 9th birthday party we had a theatre party in which we all acted out the story of Sleeping Beauty. Mary has downs and is mainstreamed, so she invited children from her early intervention school STEPPING STONES as well as her fellow classmates from the school she attends now, HILLSIDE in Livingston. After the party many of the moms of the children with disabilities loved the idea and said they wished there were more programs where their children could be “Sleeping Beauty or the handsome prince”. I thought …why not?
As it happened, just around the same time, Lisa Cooney, or Director of Education, who had just initiated Paper Mill’s first sensory friendly performance on our main stage for children with autism in our Theatre for Everyone programming, sent me a link to a class for autistic children happening at the CLO in Pittsburg. We had conservation and decided that the time was right to make this happen here at Paper Mill.
BWW: How did you get involved with VSA-NJ (and can you tell us a little about their mission)?
I contacted VSA New Jersey (Very Special Arts) which is an organization which provides a wide array of arts programming for children and adults with disabilities. They have created an award winning series of school residencies and programs that bring able-bodied and disabled artists together. We wanted our class to include theatre improvisation, storytelling, music, movement and some visual art. We wanted the series to creatively address and include diverse learning styles and modes of communication. Siblings would be welcome to join the classes and the course would end with a fun sharing for families and friends.
Who are the instructors with the class?
VSA New Jersey connected us to Leslie Fanelli. She is a wonderful creative teaching artist with goals to improve communication, cooperation, self-esteem, and have lots of fun! A professional director, playwright, lyricist, singer, and actress, Leslie is also the co-author of the 2012 publication of a Disability Theatre From the InsideOut. She also produced and sang on two music CD's--The Promise of Central Park and Disability Pride. Leslie runs the class with assistant Sean Dineen, a history professor at Kean University who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair.
What kinds of creative exercises do the kids do?
I am sure Leslie would be happy to share specific exercises she uses. They range from sign language songs to creative improve exercises with a “Magic piece of clay” to bringing wonderful stories to life. You cannot leave that class without a smile on your face from ear to ear! The work is inspiring and the children are exceptional!
I have a godson with autism (I wrote a children’s picture book based on him) and understand the need to engage these children and not simple push them aside. How does this class address those issues of engagement?
One of the most beautiful parts of this class is that it involves both the children with disabilities and their siblings. It is so interactive that by the end it is almost impossible to see any differences in the participants!
That is amazing! What has been the response from both the kids and the families?
The response has been so positive that we offered another session right away and now it has become a staple in our continued Theatre School offerings.
Paper Mill has a history of serving not only disabled patrons, but reaching out to the community on many issues. How do you feel this particular program stretches what you do as an organization?