Wallingford Mom and playwright, Lauren Goldman Marshall, founded the Theatre of Possibility (TOP), an acting and creativity class for young people who have a lot to express and who want to be more effective in their relationships with peers and adults. Some may have Aspergers or ADHD, while others may be trying to figure out peer relationships. A new class session begins on October 2 (information for registration and scholarship information appear below). Guest writer Shannon Hobbs visited TOP recently and wrote the following article.
Rehearsing Social Skills through Improv
Lauren sits near the audience calmly watching her students act out a scene. One of the students plays Amber, a teenager in charge while her parents are out. Amber tells her brothers it’s time to go to bed but they ignore her. Instead, they play video games and jump on the couch.
“Ok, forget it,” yells Amber, “you’ll just get in trouble when mom and dad get home. I’m going to bed!”
In real life that’s how it is for Amber. But this is Theater of Possibility. Lauren waits for the scene to end then turns to the audience.
“Who has power here?” she asks.
“The boys,” everyone shouts.
“Is there something else Amber can try?”
Several in the audience raise their hands. Lauren invites a young boy, maybe eight, up on stage to improvise being Amber. Two actors jump back up on stage to play the brothers. Take two.
“Time to go to bed,” our new Amber shouts.
“No!” the two brothers say.
“Ok,” says Amber, “Then let’s turn up the TV really loud. Look at me jumping on the couch!”
Over the next 15 minutes Lauren invites several in the audience onto the stage to improvise another approach. Sometimes they play Amber, sometimes the boys, exploring ways to resolve the situation differently. Welcome to Theater of Possibility (TOP), a workshop for kids created by Lauren Goldman Marshall. TOP allows the audience to interact with scenes written and performed by young actors. What makes TOP unique is that most of these actors are learning to be more effective socially. Some may have Aspergers or ADHD, while others may be trying to figure out peer relationships. On the stage they work together to perform scenes, spontaneously improvising, and showing off theater exercises that require them to be engaged.
Lauren Goldman Marshall understands the possibilities theater offers these kids. A dark-haired, focused bundle of talent, Lauren is a playwright, with such acclaimed shows as the Crepe de Paris revue, and Waiter, there’s a Slug in my Latté. Between 1994 and 2001, Lauren also served as Co-Artistic and Producing Artistic Director for Seattle Public Theater.
Lauren worked for SPT until her first child was born. For a while she continued writing, while taking care of her new baby. But, when her daughter reached 14 months, Lauren noticed she didn’t seem as interested anymore in making connections with those around her.
“When she was diagnosed with Aspergers I stopped working. From that moment on, we tried everything.”
Lauren learned all she could and speaks intelligently about the programs available for children with Aspergers. But even early on her daughter balked at conventional autism therapies. So they tried other therapies including parent-directed Relationship Development Intervention (RDI) which Lauren and her husband learned to do with their daughter. They found it beneficial.
“We had an empty room in our house with nothing but two large beanbag chairs. That’s where we’d play games, run and jump on the beanbags, work on socially connecting.”
That’s also where Lauren started coming up with her own games, drawing again on her theater experience.
“We tried tossing a ball but my daughter didn’t want to play. What was the point? I’d throw her the ball and she’d throw it on the floor. One day I said, “This ball is too spotty, I can’t possibly hold it”. I tossed it back to her and she held it. She looked at it for a minute. Then, she said, “Yeah, this ball is too squishy.” And, she threw it back.”
Lauren realized she had made an engagement. By giving her daughter power to help reinvent the game,she had enticed her to join in creative collaboration. Instead of performing a seemingly pointless, adult-directed task in return for praise or a reward, her daughter was now playing ball for the simple joy of connecting with another person.
“As a parent, you can get overwhelmed. You can’t do it all and you don’t know if what you’re doing works.”
But these games were working, taking a huge role in increasing her daughter’s social motivations. Therapists became interested in Lauren’s games because they were also seeing a change in her daughter.
Eventually, Lauren started working as a guest artist with Karen Noble-Newman’s Outlaw Actors, a social skills group. Karen provided the therapeutic insights, Lauren the theater.
“The idea that kids with autism can benefit from theater training is not new,” Lauren said. “Tony Attwood, a leading expert on Aspergers, suggests that imitation is one of the ways people with autism learn social norms and advises theater classes for young people on the spectrum. But for me, it’s not about just learning acting. How do you know someone is not just learning to imitate? Just copying social skills to cope? Who is the real ‘me’? Imitation is exhausting after a while. Eventually, you just need to be yourself.”
Lauren created games around themes such as joining in play. She sees it similar to merging onto a freeway. “Just asking, ‘Can I play?’ doesn’t always work in real peer situations. Games like ‘This Ball is Spotty’ were played in a way where kids had to figure out the rules of the game before they could join. You had to adjust your speed, add ideas, and figure out which way traffic is going in order to join the play.”
“It’s not always easy and these workshops don’t inspire everyone. Sometimes it takes a while to find group cohesion. But when they become familiar with the material and one another, all kinds of things become possible.”
Lauren’s Theater of Possibility workshop run ten or more weeks and start with smaller games, getting comfortable sharing experiences, leading and following, collaborating and just plain figuring each other out. Eventually, these games lead to scene creations, often revolving around relationships important to the kids. Soon, the kids are experiencing real social skills training in the process of developing and writing scenes. Writing by committee is extremely challenging but becomes another unique process, taking ‘a’ story and making it ‘our’ story. By the last week, the actors perform in front of an audience who will be asked to take part in exploring solutions to each scene’s problem.
Theater of Possibility information and registration
Who can benefit from TOP: Middle and High School students. (Younger students with experience will be considered, based on age makeup of group). Some of our kids may be quirky, spirited or shy, and some may have Asperger’s, ADHD or other social skills challenges. We promote an atmosphere of respect for each person’s unique gifts
Next session: Fall Session: 4:15pm-5:45pm Tuesdays for eleven weeks 10/2-12/11 plus a class sharing 4-8pm Friday 12/14 (rehearsal & potluck dinner 4-6 PM; sharing for family and friends 6-8 PM)
Where: University Heights Center, 5031 University Way NE, Seattle, WA 98105
Fee: $450 Fall Session. Payment plans and sibling discounts are available.
Scholarships: Thanks to a grant from the Seattle Office of Arts & Cultural Affairs, TOP is able to offer three partial need-based scholarships to students, grades 6–12, living in Seattle. Those outside Seattle may receive non-grant-based partial scholarships as space permits. Contact Lauren for information.
For registration or more information contact Lauren at (206) 320-0570 or [email protected]
Shannon Hobbs is a freelance writer focusing on education and the arts.