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Michigan theater company gives kids with disabilities a chance to shine on stage

Feb 15, 2017

Did you ever dream of seeing your name on a Broadway marquee as a kid?

If so, you probably have some fond memories of memorizing lines and making costumes for school plays. But for kids with intellectual and developmental disabilities, finding a spotlight isn’t always easy.

A growing number of programs across the country are trying to change that. 

And Michigan's 4th Wall Theatre Company is one of them. 

In theater, the "fourth wall" is the imaginary border between the audience and the actors on stage. When an actor gives you a wink or talks right to you, its called “breaking the fourth wall.”

“We decided to reverse that and break the fourth wall in other direction, meaning anyone can come from audience onto the stage and participate. So, we open the door to everyone of all abilities to come and participate in the theater,” said co-founder and artistic director Annie Klark. 

4th Wall is a mobile theater company and teaches classes all over the state, but its longest-running program is with the Down Syndrome Guild of Southeast Michigan.

When I visited their weekly rehearsal, the students were about four weeks away from their final show. In a spare room at a Bloomfield Hills church, they were working on nailing down their choreography to Kool & the Gang's Celebrate.

Actors in the 4th Wall Theatre Company strike a pose during rehearsal for their final showcase.
Credit April Van Buren / Michigan Radio

This is the same place where Klark and her friend Katie Mann taught the very first 4th Wall class. 

It started out as a hobby. 

"We didn't know if the community would respond to this or if they even had a need for it," said Mann.

“And after the very first show, and the very first round of applause, the students were beaming. The families were in tears. They took their final bows. And one student ran up to me and said 'Ms. Katie! Ms. Katie! Ms. Katie! They looked at me because I was good not because I was different.'”

The first class had just six students. Now, Mann says the company teaches in over 100 different locations across Michigan and has taught more than 5,000 students with disabilities. 

And the students in 4th Wall classes aren't just learning to be actors, singers and dancers. They also have a hand in writing and producing their final showcase.

They help pick out storylines, settings and characters for an original play. Sometimes that means you have Dorothy from Oz and a vampire on stage at the same time, but they make it work. 

Mann says no one, regardless of their ability, ends up as that proverbial “tree in the background.”

“A lot of times moms will call me and say ‘This sounds great. But my child doesn’t speak. They’re nonverbal. Can they still come?’ Of course! We’ve connected iPads to speaking systems and used the tablet to have them speak. We’ve had students hold up posters to speak, and we’ve had students just do a gesture, a thumbs up or something," Mann told me. 

Mann and Klark like to call the work they do at 4th Wall “therapy in disguise.”

Neuropsychologist Blythe Corbett says there might be something to that.

Corbett is the director of the S.E.N.S.E. Lab at Vanderbilt University, which studies the social functioning of kids with autism.

“One of the things we’re best known for is novel treatments," Corbett said. "For example, we utilize theater to address some of the social communication challenges that children and adolescents with autism experience.”

Corbett’s lab wanted to see if they could actually measure the therapeutic value of theater for people with autism.

And what they found was promising.

Kids who participated in the lab's theater camp spent more time interacting with new peers on the playground.

Kids who participated in the lab’s theater camp spent more time interacting with new peers on the playground.

They also got better at remembering faces, something that can be a challenge for people with autism.

I asked Corbett if she could ever see a doctor writing out a prescription for theater. 

"I would love it. I think it would be fantastic. I think we need to change our view of what we call treatment," said Corbett.  

4th Wall parent Alexa Ruhfass told me the benefits of theater go well beyond the students themselves.

Her daughter Selina Wiesenberger has performed in 4th Wall for a few years now. Selina is the oldest of Ruhfass's three kids. 

“And when they came here for a performance my other kids were 'There are all Selinas!’ They saw 30 people with Down syndrome, young adults in one place and my other kids were just thrilled” said Ruhfass. 

Rufahss says her daughter has thrived at 4th Wall.

She’s met a big group of new friends. And she's even performed on stage, in front of thousands of people, at Detroit’s historic Fox Theater.

“How many parents can say that?" Ruhfass asked. "Okay, my child has a disability. So what? She’s a star. I think that’s great." 

What 4th Wall gives Selina, and the other actors in the program, is a place to shine.