BOULDER — They gather in a circle at the center of the classroom, players warming up for a performance by sending the energy of spoken language around the perimeter in one direction, with voices and hand gestures united to pass it along: “Whish-whish-whish-whish…”
At a random moment, an actor receiving the whish! says, “Whoa!” and the sound and movement reverse direction and again pass quickly from person to person. With each whish-whish-whoa, the energy of the spoken word gathers speed.
It’s a common theater warmup. For these players, who have aphasia — a condition that impairs the ability to speak and understand language — the exercise prepares them for a larger effort to stretch those barriers.
It will culminate in a little less than two months, when this therapy group of about a dozen individuals, who also get individual assistance at the CU clinic, will present its interpretation of “The Wizard of Oz” to friends, clinicians and family on the University of Colorado campus.
Each fall and spring, the group participates in a joint activity, and this semester — for the first time — faculty members Holly Kleiber and Christina Riseman, from the CU Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences department, have embarked on an “applied theater” project to encourage communication. While most of the clients have aphasia, usually due to stroke or traumatic brain injury, some grapple with dysarthria, marked by slurred or slow speech.
With graduate school clinicians, as well as guidance from CU’s Department of Theater and Dance, the interdisciplinary collaboration attempts to build on similar therapy studied at the Center for Aphasia Research and Treatment at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, which found that drama therapy produced improvement in client communication and mood.
The CU project also will generate data on client communication and quality of life, as well as on the collaboration between the two academic departments. In this, only the second “rehearsal” for their play, activities focus on clients generating lines and creating scenes from some basic prompts.
“We’d like them to improvise and generate those lines themselves,” Kleiber says. “Each client has personalized goals they’re working on within each session. Theater is really more the mode of practice. The bottom line is it’s still therapy with set goals.”
The idea hatched last spring, when a client who’d done theater in a previous therapy group suggested it. Riseman also had a personal connection. Her mother suffered a stroke in 2007 and benefited from the experience at the Adler Aphasia Center in New Jersey.
The CU group obtained funding from the MINDSOURCE Brain Injury Network, a survivor-operated nonprofit advocacy organization within the Colorado Department of Human Services. Once Kleiber and Riseman researched the Chicago project, touched base with the Adler Center for advice and figured out how they’d proceed, they reached out for help.
Speech and language were one thing. Acting was another.
The collaboration with CU’s Theater and Dance department proved more than a little serendipitous. Gillian Nogeire, who’s working on her doctorate in the department, saw the email from the Speech and Language folks broaching the idea and responded enthusiastically within the hour.
She’d worked with her own theater company in New York, where she took bilingual Shakespearean plays to underserved audiences in places like the Bronx, Brooklyn and East Harlem. But her life changed when she tuned in to a National Public Radio podcast that featured Agnes Wilcox, whose St. Louis-area Prison Performing Arts program had taken Shakespeare into a maximum-security prisons, where inmates often wrestle with his themes of justice, revenge and guilt.
The story brought her to tears. She emailed Wilcox and soon was working with her. Until her move to Colorado, her experience with applied theater happened mostly behind bars.
Earlier at CU, she wrote her master’s thesis on the ways that Shakespeare programs in prison could actually reduce recidivism. (In Missouri, data showed that inmates in the program were 20% less likely to return to prison.) Over time, she began “connecting the dots” to new research on cognitive neuroscience.
“When I did that, it kind of opened the floodgate of curiosity for me,” she says. “I realized there was all this significant research that supports the things I intrinsically knew that applied theater could do, but didn’t know it had this scientific backing.”
For her doctoral dissertation, she’s researching the cognitive impact of applied theater.
“So when Christina and Holly emailed me,” she recalls, “I said, ‘I’ve gotta see how this goes. This is going to be great.’”
“The Wizard of Oz” storyline proved attractive for its adaptability, and the fact that it already has gone through many iterations. Even the book and the original movie are different. So a script is necessary only to sketch out a scene in its most basic form. There are few lines to memorize, and a premium on nonverbal communication.
“If we get them to respond in the moment and that becomes a line, the physical movement becomes how they tell the story,” she says. “That might bolster their self-confidence.”
Although this group differs in many ways from those she worked with in prison, she has noticed one common challenge: memory lapses when it comes to language. Many inmates suffer from traumatic brain injuries and reported trouble memorizing lines, either due to the injury or the medication to treat it. Difficulties stemming from stroke she finds not so different.
“The other thing that’s not new is the idea of identity that I feel is valuable in applied theater,” Nogeire says. “For the next hour and a half, you’re not a person with aphasia. You’re an actor, so let’s focus on that.”
Riseman and Kleiber will also focus on data — particularly surveys on how the project affects the clients’ quality of life. Frustration often accompanies speech and language difficulties, but the hope is that by exploring different ways the actors can express themselves, they’ll gain confidence from their success.
“A lot of the members will realize, ‘I just did the impossible by finishing participating in this play,’” Riseman says. “That gives them confidence in conversation. The fact they can do this on stage, conversation should be easier and less stressful. We’re hoping to have that carryover to real life, and maybe they’ll think, ‘Why not participate more in life?’”
With any group of untrained actors, Nogeire says, one of the first challenges is getting them comfortable with putting themselves out there, in a vulnerable position where the results might be embarrassing. Even in the acting class she teaches at CU she might spend a couple of weeks just on overcoming that shyness.
“What’s amazing about these people is that I didn’t have to do that at all,” she says. “These people are already courageous. Because of everything they’ve been through, it’s not so scary for them. Yes, they may be having trouble forming words, but they’re definitely communicating. In a way, they’re some of the best actors I’ve worked with in awhile.”
Graduate student Amanda Joyce stands at the front of the room. Today is her turn leading the group through the day’s activity, and part of it involves the actors getting into character. They’ve all been assigned parts, based on a listing of their preferences, and now Joyce has them each say the name of their character — but also add a gesture that helps communicate it.
Joyce already has a background in the performing arts and understood the connection with speech and language, so she was thrilled to get this particular clinical placement. But she’d never experienced applied theater firsthand and realized how fun it could be for everyone.
“The performing arts are just such a genuinely enjoyable thing,” she says. “When you do it with a group like this, who all so obviously enjoy each other, and then put it in the context of a theatrical production, all of the sudden it just feels like fun theater games. It’s such a great way to work on speech and language where it doesn’t feel like work.”
Scarecrow, played by tall and lanky, 71-year-old Darrell Icenogle, tilts slightly and puts a finger to his head. The scarecrow needs a brain. A second Dorothy in the cast, Yvonne Eyk, cups her hand to her ear and calls out “Dorothy! Dorothy!” Dave Whalen, playing the Wicked Witch, bares his teeth and growls.
And so on down the line.
Client Clark Miller — the one who first suggested a theater production — had lobbied hard for putting on J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings.” He spent last summer re-reading the book and crafting ideas for scenes. When the group settled on “Oz” for its performance, a creative compromise seemed in order.
And so he plays the part of Glenda the good witch — but as a sort of hybrid character in which he channels Éowyn, the noblewoman from “Rings.” Besides, Nogeire suspects that Tolkien surely read “Oz” author Frank Baum’s work. And even though in the movie Glenda meets Dorothy when she crashes to Earth, in the book she’s met by the Witch of the North, who isn’t named.
“If they don’t have a name, why not make it Éowyn?” she says. “It also solidifies the fact that this is for this group of people, doing their own interpretation. And we want everyone to be happy with their part.”
Everyone got their first or second choice of characters. So now the work of transforming them into an actual play begins.
“Look what I have,” Nogeire says, waving a sheaf of papers. “Scripts. There’s some stuff from the movie, which is what everyone is familiar with, but I also included new details from the book. This is just an outline, though. We don’t have to stick with this.”
Nicole Yehl and Icenogle — Dorothy and Scarecrow — take the first stab at creating a scene based on Nogeire’s direction, which focuses not on spoken lines at all, but body language that conveys Dorothy’s initial happiness at following the yellow brick road, and then her fatigue as she lies down to rest. A narrator’s lines serve as prompts.
Yehl’s Dorothy catches on quickly, beginning with tentative heel-to-toe steps and then gathering speed and confidence as she chants, “Follow the yellow brick road, follow the yellow brick road.” She suffered a stroke three years ago, at age 31, and initially lost some function of her right arm. That returned, though she still has challenges with language. She loves doing the part because her character repeats things.
“The most important thing we do is through our bodies,” Nogeire reminds the performers.
Yehl captures Dorothy’s shifting mood perfectly, earning applause from the group.
Enter Icenogle’s Scarecrow, stiff and bored from standing in a field all his life. He spies Dorothy and waves her over to him. Icenogle, too, suffered a stroke that affected his language. Yet his skill on the guitar, which the group will put to use in the musical portion of the play, appears untouched.
“Hello,” he says in Scarecrow character.
Dorothy responds by taking a frightened step back.
And….scene. Bit by bit, they’ve successfully constructed a segment of the play. More applause.
“From the top!” Nogeire commands. “I know it’s a lot. But it’s about remembering sequences.”
The group disperses to work on their own scenes with the graduate students. With work, repetition and what looks like a lot of fun, they’ll eventually have a production. On Dec. 8, they’ll put on a private performance for friends, family and invited guests.
They’ve packed a lot into just 90 minutes of rehearsal, and soon most of them head to one-on-one sessions with their clinicians.
Yehl and Icenogle move to a corner of the room where he pulls out his guitar and clamps on a capo. She scans a sheet of paper with the lyrics to “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
Icenogle deftly finger-picks the melody. Yehl follows her index finger word-by-word across the page, softly singing the iconic song with a voice that she honed in what she laughingly calls a “family band” with her parents and brothers. Icenogle plays in a register that’s a bit too high for her, so Joyce, the grad student clinician, suggests he move the capo down a few frets.
Dorothy and Scarecrow perform lines from the song again and again. Slowly, they settle into sync, and Joyce smiles.
“You got it!” she says.
Slowly, gradually, Yehl’s right hand slides away from the lyrics until she’s singing, purely and clearly, no longer needing to guide herself with her finger. Her hand drops to her side while she performs the final line of the song.
Icenogle lays the notes from his guitar perfectly beneath Yehl’s rising voice.
“…And the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true.”
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