Theater has always been a big part of Leah Wolfson’s life, so she was excited to find classes for her young son with people who understood his unique challenges.
Wolfson’s son is on the autism spectrum, and he’s learning important life skills through his theater classes at Imagination Stage in Bethesda, such as cooperation and social interactions. For example, he can make suggestions and see which ideas the teacher and students like and which they don’t. In theater class, he can practice navigating tricky situations while having fun.
“It’s a really great laboratory for kids with particular needs to try out different things,” Wolfson says. “My child benefits and others do too from having their challenges normalized.”
Scott Turner, teaching artist and Access and Inclusion Coordinator at Imagination Stage, describes theater as a safe place where children with disabilities can be comfortable to be themselves and enjoy the process of learning skills without the formality that is expected in an academic setting. He has seen his students increase their confidence by learning to have fun and be silly and practice reciprocal conversational skills in a lighthearted setting.
The key, according to Turner, is working with students individually. Understanding that children have different levels of need, Imagination Stage does not operate from a “one-size-fits-all mentality,” says Turner. “We talk to families to develop that secret sauce together.”
Turner recalls a unique situation with a student who came to Imagination Stage as an “eloper,” someone who runs away from a situation. The starting goal was getting him to stay in the classroom for a small amount of time that increased, just a little, every week. After several years of work, this student was able to enter the building, check in at the table and walk into his class “ready to go,” Turner says. “He’d taken so many classes at that point, he was teaching the teachers and making suggestions.”
When Lilly Sherman started taking Imagination Stage dance classes at 5 years old, her family knew right away that it was a good fit. Lilly has Down syndrome, and the school provided an extra adult in the classroom—not an assistant. Just that little extra put Lilly and her parents at ease. Now 14, Lilly has taken many more dance and stage make-up classes at Imagination Stage and participated in a month-long theater camp.
Imagination Stage teachers know when to give extra help without hovering, explains Cathleen Sherman, Lilly’s mom. “With each thing she’s done, Imagination Stage gave her the right amount of support,” she says. “She’s really proud of herself at the end of each class.”
Plus, Lilly’s self-confidence keeps growing. She auditioned for the lead in “Aladdin,” and although she didn’t get that role, she intends to try again in other Imagination Stage productions.
ArtStream, based in Chevy Chase, also offers classes specifically for kids with intellectual and developmental disabilities who might otherwise get left out of traditional theater programs.
Penny Russell, a teaching artist at ArtStream, says theater programs benefit children with disabilities by helping with social and emotional development. “Working through emotions in character can help a child recognize their own emotions as well as the emotions of others. This leads to greater empathy … [which] will help the participant throughout their life,” she says.
Turner also sees theater classes as a place for new ideas to flourish. Creativity happens naturally when “students use imagination for games and exercises,” he says. For instance, they may receive fictional scenarios and be asked to create their own characters and scenes as part of improvisation. This is where children with disabilities blossom as they use their own vision and draw from their personal preferences and lives to create new things.
Time management, meeting deadlines, flexibility, thinking on one’s feet and problem solving are also skills kids learn in a theater class, says Heller An Shapiro, ArtStream’s executive director.
“Performance is transformative, a way to find your voice and find your creativity and strength,” Shapiro says. More than that, it provides the opportunity for parents and others to see a child on stage. “They see them in a whole new light and recognize talent and confidence they didn’t know that student had.”
When Cathleen Sherman watched daughter Lilly onstage in “Aladdin,” singing and dancing as part of the ensemble in nearly every scene, she was amazed. Lilly’s friends came to watch her and couldn’t believe what she was capable of.
“That was one of our favorite memories,” says Sherman.
Additional reporting by Amanda M. Socci. This story originally appeared in our March 2021 issue.