I earned my first part in a play just by raising my hand.
“Who wants to be Snow White?”
That is how I became the lead of Willow Lake’s 1987 camp production. There I was: singing, dancing and kissing Josh – a first grader. What kind of magic was this?
That night I went to bed very happy.
I was fortunate to have parents that noticed my theatrical interest, even at age five. Next stop, Into the Woods on Broadway. Bernadette Peters opened her mouth, I turned to my sister and said “she has hair like us” and then didn’t breathe for the next two hours.
I discovered a new home. A place to capture my energy, imagination, and desire to belt out a show tune. Like so many others, I collected enough tee-shirts from my theatrical productions, I could make a quilt for my children.
I never wanted to do anything else. So I didn’t.
Theater invited me to examine the world. It introduced me to empathy. It introduced me to aspects of myself. Perhaps most importantly, it introduced me to my husband.
When we both graduated with master’s degrees in Educational Theater, we knew we were starting a journey together where theater was our foundation. As practitioners and patrons of this work, there was not one aspect of our lives that theater did not touch.
While my performance skills these days are reduced to keeping 9th graders awake during first period and singing lullabies to my children, I remained dedicated to seeing theater. In fact, when life gets hard, I make a point to see more of it. I transform into that five-year-old girl. The lights dim and I am only surrounded by a hushed silence. I am transfixed. I am mesmerized. I am elated.
Unfortunately, this is the very environment that is impossible for my daughter to be in.
My daughter has a rare developmental disability called Cri Du Chat. She has defied expectations. Where she was once never to walk or talk, she is often having a dance party, singing with her shadow. At three, her special education teacher voted her most likely to become a pop star. If the love of theater is genetic, this child got all of it. However, the deletion of her 5th chromosome means we cannot take her into a traditional space. The dark is too scary, the sound is too loud, and the concept of “a hushed silence” is frankly preposterous. Although we are thrilled there are more sensory friendly opportunities, it is still too overwhelming for my daughter to access the arts in this traditional way.
Seven years in, my husband and I have accepted what it means to raise a child with special needs. We have learned how to manage IEPs, rude comments, and even our own expectations. However, what we could never quite come around to was how heartbreaking it felt to leave her with a babysitter while “mommy and daddy went to see a play.” Not because we couldn’t be together but because we couldn’t share something with her that felt so foundational to who were were as her parents. We were resigned to the fact that we would never get to see a play with our child.
Then we found the “Big Umbrella Festival” at Lincoln Center comprised of theatrical productions committed to serving children with special needs. And soon, our inbox was filled with symposium information for us as educators and ticket information for us as a family.
And because of this, my husband and I saw a play with our daughter.
We entered the space with trepidation. I had packed a bag with every possible tool I would need in case there was a meltdown. When you parent a child with extreme sensory issues, you are always just waiting for the next outburst. I didn’t realize how exhausting that was, until I could be in a place where I could let it go. In this theater, “you cannot do that” didn’t exist. It was so thoughtfully designed, it looked effortless. Meltdowns were okay, talking to the performers was okay, and even jumping out of your seat to touch the props was encouraged.
When I realized my daughter was not just fine but thriving, I allowed myself to notice the other families. It was as if we all had the same thought: we can allow our children to be themselves here. And when the tears rolled down my cheeks, one of the actors passed me a tissue – that’s how observant they are.
Theater does not have to be a story that we just sit and watch. It is an experiential process that allows an individual to move forward. Even if it is just by degrees. Today my daughter was able to look at art in a way that was available to her. Today, she was encouraged to dance with someone besides her own shadow. Today, we didn’t have to be a special needs family, we just got to be a family.
As I put her very exhausted body to bed tonight, and tucked her in with the light just right and her fourteen stuffed animals, she quietly whispered, “Mommy.”
“The play made me happy. I felt powerful.”
“Yes, honey. Me too. ”
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