True story: One night in the summer of 2009, I had a dream that I took a group of actors with special needs to a high school arts competition. The next day I was offered the opportunity to start a collaborative speech-language/drama program that targeted social communication skills while the group worked to put on a play. That really happened.
Obviously, my answer was “yes.”
The Expanding Horizons: Broadway Kids program, a collaboration between the Loyola Clinical Centers of Loyola University Maryland and the Columbia Center for Theatrical Arts (CCTA), started in the fall of 2009 with five actors. First-year graduate students under the supervision of a licensed SLP planned weekly 1.25 hour group speech-language sessions that targeted the individual pragmatic needs of the “actors.” Traditional theater games (e.g. improvisational activities) were modified to teach skills needed to be both successful actors and successful communicators. Clinicians targeted using the voice and body to convey emotion, reading the non-verbal cues sent by a communication partner, as well as giving and receiving constructive feedback during small group sessions. Next, the whole gang joined together to practice selected songs and scenes from a musical, with a director and music director from CCTA running the show (pun intended). The graduate clinicians facilitated generalization of the goals targeted in the highly structured small groups into the larger, more informal, group setting (play rehearsal).
Since then, there have been nine performances. Cast sizes have tripled, peer buddies have been added, and the Howard County Public School System joined as a partner (a tear jerking story about that later). The original format described above has remained consistent, but we have learned many things. Here are just a few items from our long list of lessons learned.
1. Not every kid wants to be on stage.
Shocking, right? As someone who has been performing since age 10, the fact that other people would not find the stage as amazing as I do was eye opening. Though, as a grown-up and a professional, I should have known better. Through the years, we have made good progress to ensure that all actors are going benefit from the program. Client selection factors include making sure the actors have shown interest in the arts in advance of being volunteered for our program. Trying to target social skills while an actor is hiding under a table suffering from a severe case of stage fight doesn’t work too well.
2. Don’t assume.
We all know what happens when we assume, but I still do it. This year I assumed that the middle school girl with selective mutism would benefit little (warning: here comes the tear jerking part). What I did not know was that this student had requested to be in the program. In September, there was limited to no verbal communication during rehearsals. Somewhere along the way, she was assigned a musical solo (our director was obviously a more optimistic person than myself, thank goodness). When this student performed the solo for her sixth-grade peers, the audience went wild. Again, I had assumed that the school audience would be polite, but would be more excited to be out of class than to support a peer. The reaction from the audience was genuine and supportive. They understood how much courage it took to be up on the stage, and recognized the huge accomplishment of their classmate who they had never heard speak. Of the adults present, there was not a dry eye in the house. Personally, I was sobbing.
3. Stakeholder buy in is a must.
School staff and leadership need to see the value in such a program for it to be a success. Our most successful school partnerships have been those where we were invited to a) perform for the general education students and b) easily partnered with the school SLP. Because of the level of collaboration between us, teachers, and the SLP at the second high school we were invited into, the program continued without Loyola involvement in the subsequent year. An integrated theater arts program at a public high school was born!
It’s been a tremendous four years and we are looking forward to many more. To learn more, visit Loyola’s Clinical Center’s website and the Columbia Center for Theatrical Arts website for more information.
Erin Stauder, MS, CCC-SLP, is clinical faculty at Loyola University Maryland. She has worked in special education schools, early intervention, and in acute care pediatric settings. Currently, she supervises a diverse caseload that includes a social skills group that uses theater to teach pragmatic language skills. She can be reached at email@example.com.