Seattle's Child

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The Theater of Possibility

Seattle theater artist and playwright Lauren Goldman Marshall has a long held interest in applied theater – that is in using theater to explore political and social issues as well as personal growth and transformation. She says when she first learned about Brazilian actor/director Augusto Boal and the “Theater of the Oppressed” techniques he developed to engage actors in improvisation and audiences in onstage problem solving, she knew she’d found an approach to theater that could change lives. And for the past four years, she’s been doing just that through Theater of Possibility, a program designed to help young people – especially those challenged socially – develop and practice critical social skills and problem solving.

In a recent interview with Seattle’s Child, Goldman Marshall shared her thoughts and insights about theater play as a therapeutic as well as just plain fun forum for relationship exploration. Her responses follow:

SC: What is the story behind Theater of Possibility?

Lauren Goldman Marshall: I didn’t expect to stop working in theater after starting my family. I took my infant daughter to rehearsals and workshops and when she became a toddler put her in day care two days a week so I could work on a playwriting commission.

However, my daughter was miserable in day care, and the staff observed that she didn’t interact with the other toddlers. My husband and I too noticed that, although very bright and verbal, she was becoming more withdrawn and repetitive in her play. She stopped drawing and instead started lining up her crayons. She became extremely rigid. She wouldn’t walk through doorways unless I was holding her hand, and would get upset if we moved the pillows on the couch. She carried a little wood chip with her everywhere she went. At age 2, she was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, later changed to Asperger’s.

I quit working. I became her full time de-facto “program manager,” driving her to and from appointments in speech, occupational and behavioral therapy and bringing graduate students into our home as assistant therapists. We began to see slow progress, but I was unhappy with what parenting had become for me. I didn’t sign up to be a cook and chauffeur. I wanted to enjoy my child, but all her time was being taken up by therapists.

The gold standard for autism therapy is Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA), which involves discrete drills. Under the guidance of a trained therapist, a positive behavior is practiced and rewarded over and over until it becomes habitual. ABA works great for some kids. In my mind, it’s especially valuable for teaching “static” social skills, such as how to say please and thank you. The incentives of material rewards can also be useful for helping a child over an impasse, or breaking a pattern of negative behaviors. But it wasn’t helping my daughter to play with her peers or discover that a pillow fight might actually be more fun than keeping the pillows in their proper place on the couch.

So my husband and I learned a therapy approach called Relationship Development Intervention (RDI), developed by Stephen Gutstein (author of “Autism/Aspergers: Solving The Relationship Puzzle”). RDI is based on the premise that the ability to form relationships with people is dependent on acquiring “dynamic” social skills along with “static” ones. Saying “Can I play?” (the static skill) won’t get you very far on the playground. Children join into play by observing and imitating their peers, and then adding variations. A child climbs up the slide and goes down it backwards. The peer climbs up no handed and goes down it backwards on the rim, and pretty soon, they have a game going. It’s “theme and variation.” Social stories, which are commonly used for teaching children with autism, teach children how to work from a script. But real peer relationships require improvisation.

This made a lot of sense to me, with my theater background. My husband and I converted an empty room in our house to our RDI lab, and we took over our daughter’s therapy program, blending RDI with theater games and activities that we made up. There was nothing in the room but a few large beanbag chairs, and we would start by holding our 2-year-old’s hand, running and jumping onto the beanbags and then sharing a laugh together. At first, it seemed pointless to us, but pretty soon, we were adding variations to our theme, counting in silly ways to time our jump; our shared laughter was becoming more natural and genuine. RDI breaks relationship training down into building blocks that are part of a normal toddler’s development. You start with experience sharing and social referencing. Why do people make eye contact? Because something funny or exciting is even more so when you share your reaction with another person. Or, because you need to check in to see if your social partner is listening, approving, understanding, etc. We would play games where I would hide a pair of keys under three pillows and my daughter would have to look at my gaze (“follow my eyes”) to find out where the keys were hidden. Now she was learning the power of eye contact. She was making eye contact to get meaningful information, and not just to earn some sticker as a reward.

By age 4, my daughter was imitating and playing with peers. She could (and still can) be rigid and socially awkward at times, but she had learned the joyful give and take of unplanned play. By the middle of elementary school, she had formed several close, reciprocal friendships that persist to this day.

I was so buoyed by the results we had seen in my daughter that I conceived of creating a program to teach relationship skills through theater, drawing on my previous work in Boal’s techniques along with what I had learned from RDI. In early 2010, Therapist Karen Noble Newman and I formed Theater of Possibility.

SC: Did your success with your daughter translate to other kids with different challenges?

Goldman Marshall: Working with a group of unknown kids, with different needs and personalities, was very different form working one-on-one with my daughter. I’ve had to learn strategies for managing a classroom of diverse individuals, some of whom may have challenges with self-regulation or sensory overload. I’m always experimenting with finding the right balance between social skills exploration and theater. It varies from class to class, but I think I’m finding a blend that works.

SC: So how does TOP work? What happens in a workshop?

TOP is a class for exploring relationship skills through theater. I like to say “exploring” rather than “teaching” because I am not a trained therapist, and our program is not didactic. Rather, I try to give students the opportunity to practice social skills in a fun and creative way and give them tools to make their own discoveries. What I do complements, but is not meant to be a replacement for, traditional social skills therapy.

I typically teach TOP in 10- to12-week after-school sessions. I also teach two-week intensive workshops in the summer, where we cover the same material in a more concentrated fashion.

The program varies somewhat depending on the ages of the students, but typically we spend the first five to six weeks teaching skills and building ensemble through theater games. These are drawn from Theater of the Oppressed techniques and drama therapy techniques, theater improvisation, introductory acting exercises, and my own invention. I group games around certain skills that I want to highlight at each session, such as social referencing, body and space awareness, interpreting emotions, leading and following, flexibility, consensus building and collaboration.

In the latter weeks of the session, we turn our focus to scene creation. First, we do a series of games and activities to teach collaboration, focusing on the very important concept of “yes, and . . .” When your improvisation partner starts a scene, that’s called “making an offer.” Good improvisors don’t say no to that offer, but rather build on it by adding ideas of their own.

This concept of “yes, and . . .” is fundamental to playground play, to collaborating on a joint project for school, and to working together in the business world. Yet, this can be very hard for anyone to learn, all the more so for individuals with fixed interests and strong ideas of their own.

SC: Are students eager to learn social skills?

Goldman Marshall: My students don’t come wanting to learn social skills; they want to do theater and have fun. Some of them have been in social skills groups and are looking for something different. So I’ve learned to work the social skills training in “through the backdoor.”

I once had a young boy in my class who was fixated on dinosaurs. Every scene he did was about dinosaurs. We were playing a game in which our goal was to create a collective story by adding to images one at a time. The first person starts by making a frozen statue of a tree and saying “I am a tree.” The next person adds to that, e.g. “I am a kite stuck in the tree.” This boy wanted to come in as a dinosaur, but I had told the group that our goal was to make one cohesive story and I had worked with this sweet boy long enough to know I could push him a little, so I challenged him. “Dinosaurs and kites don’t belong in the same world. Can you think of something else to add to the scene that would fit with what’s already there?” He couldn’t. He wanted the kite to go away so that he could be a dinosaur. Finally, I offered a compromise: he could be a picture of a dinosaur painted on the kite. That satisfied him. It wasn’t quite the victory I wanted, but the next time we went through the game, someone was a worm and he came in as a spider. He had let go of dinosaurs, and joined in someone else’s story. He had practiced “yes, and . . .”

SC: How do improvisation and the theater games you use help a child solve problems in the real world?

Goldman Marshall: I have come to believe that the most important social skills training in TOP happens through the process of coming together to create our final scenes. This is where all the skills of flexibility, leading and following, compromise, consensus building, and collaboration that we have been practicing in the games are now put to the test. Our scenes are purposefully designed to present unresolved conflicts. We then use techniques that we have been practicing along the way to explore solutions to the problem or deepen our understanding of a situation.

Throughout the workshop, we are teaching techniques such as “forum theater” that can be used in a very conscious and deliberate way for problem solving. Boal called it a “rehearsal for living,” and indeed I’ve often used this technique with my daughter at home to practice in advance how to deal with a troublesome situation, such as how to respond to a boy who had been bullying her at school. With forum theater, you get a chance to try out different strategies and see what happens. Kids are commonly taught “just ignore it” as a response to bullying. In forum theater, the actor playing the bully is instructed to try harder when you ignore it. Ignoring can still work, but it takes great stamina, and by practicing it this way, you can be prepared for how hard it is in real life! Through forum theater, we can explore what other strategies may be even more effective, depending on the situation. Responding with humor, keeping ones dignity, using “I” statements to explain why this is hurtful, getting a witness, and bringing in allies can all be effective solutions.

With younger kids, these activities may look quite different, but still achieve the same goals. For example, we used forum theater to explore what might the Big Bad Wolf do if he just wanted the three little pigs to come out an play with him? The kids found that blowing down the house or digging a tunnel under the ground and into the floor didn’t make the piggies want to come out and play. Offering compliments, on the other hand, was pretty effective!

SC: Why is social skills practice so critical?

Just as reading and arithmetic come harder for some individuals, social skills come harder for others. I think I can identify with my students because I wasn’t the most socially adept person growing up. I wasn’t popular and would often miss social cues. Theater helped me to break free of a limited perception of myself, colored by other people’s perceptions and labeling and discover hidden aspects of myself. Tony Attwood, a leading expert of Asperger’s, notes that imitation is a powerful coping skill for many people on the spectrum and advises acting classes. I agree, but I think it’s about much more than learning to pass for neurotypical or putting on a false face. I think it’s about discovering one’s untapped potential. I’ve seen students get frustrated by the idea of being someone you’re not and ask “where is the real me?” My goal is to help students tap into the many aspects of who they are and be themselves more confidently and authentically.

SC: You have kids of all abilities, what benefits do typically developing kids get from participating in TOP?

Goldman Marshall: TOP serves a wide range of students, including those without special needs. Some of the students may be quirky, spirited or shy, and some may have Asperger’s autism, ADHD, OCD or other learning differences or disabilities. I have had a couple students with Down Syndrome. I have neuro-typical students with siblings or friends on the spectrum or who just want to take the class to explore theater in a different way. Some of my students are highly gifted and in honors programs at their school. Others may be home schooled for various reasons and wanting an opportunity to have more peer interaction. I like to think of it as a different kind of theater class, one for exploring one’s self and relationship to others, rather than a theater class for the disabled.

From a class standpoint, neuro-typical kids serve as valuable role models, setting a standard of participation that others can rise to. I think the class offers much to offer “neuro-typicals” in return. It is a chance to explore one’s self and relationships to others, to deal with issues that may be affecting one’s life, to practice mentoring and leadership skills, and to use one’s imagination in a fun and supportive environment. I also think that working in a diverse environment makes us all more tolerant of others and accepting of one’s own strengths and limitations.

SC: Is disability a focus of the class?

Goldman Marshall: We never talk about disabilities in the class, unless the students themselves bring it up, but we do talk about respect and honoring each person’s gifts. Many of our games are designed to find commonality and practice working together in pairs, small groups and as an ensemble.

This diversity makes for a unique atmosphere and learning environment. For the most part, we have been able to use that diversity to build strong bonds, appreciate one another’s unique talents, and overcome prejudices. The beauty of theater is that there are many ways to shine. Highly verbal students are often quick on their feet with improvised dialogue. Other students may be more intuitive, and really excel in some of the nonverbal “image theater” work we do. One of my students with Down Syndrome is extremely insightful and has a way of opening up our hearts to be more compassionate. In my older classes, some of my students have tried their hand at playwriting, while others really shine at acting and improvisation or group leadership.

SC: Tell us about some of the real changes you have witnessed in teaching TOP.

Goldman Marshall: I see the little victories that happen in class. I had one boy who was very rigid. At first, he wouldn’t join in many of the games, and when he did, he held a little stuffy like a puppet to speak for him. He was in a scene about two boys who had to work together on a school project. One (the other boy) was obsessed with a computer game and would talk about nothing but that; the other (this boy) wanted to do everything strictly by the rules and kept getting frustrated with the computer kid. The fictional characters mirrored the kids who were portraying them.

The boys really had a hard time coming together on their scene just like the kids in the play had a hard time coming together on their project. Finally, the boy who was rigid took a red pen and rewrote the script for me. I realized that I had only been looking at the scene from the other characters point of view, and that his character wasn’t drawn sympathetically enough. He helped me make it a better scene. When he came back the next year, he was much more flexible, emotionally and physically, and joined in all the activities with his full body. By the end, he was showing some leadership in the group. His mother remarked on how she felt the class had really helped him become less rigid and more flexible in his thinking.

I had a nonverbal student in one of my younger classes. He came with an aide and I tried my best to enter his world to build a bridge back into my world. We played mirroring games where we imitated one another’s physical movements and turned it into a dance. When this boy saw that the entire class was imitating his movements to music he really got into it. The other kids saw what a great dancer he is. For our final scene, the theme was super heroes. Each child had a special power. The boy liked to fan the pages of books, so we made him the “wind maker.” When he fanned the book, all the other kids would drift about as if they were blown by the wind. I never saw him so engaged as when we gave him a super hero cape to wear and let him be the wind. I learned so much from having him in the group.