Eight people stand inside an invisible square, all looking in the same direction. Improvising the part of an elevator, they stamp their feet in place to indicate that they are traveling, until the person playing the conductor calls out the floor. When the fifth floor turns out to be the shoe department, one person takes on the persona of a salesman, another pretends to try on several shoes in different colors, and someone else rings up purchases on an imagined cash register. After a few minutes, they return to the elevator, becoming passengers again, until they arrive on the next floor, prepared to play out another scene.
The actors are clients of Ohel Bais Ezra Day Habilitation in Brooklyn, an organization that provides support services and daily activities for Jewish adults with intellectual disabilities, including help with job and socialization skills. They attend a weekly workshop in drama, presented by Black Box Studios, a theater arts teaching program based in Bergen County, N.J.
Matt Okin, artistic director of Black Box, was invited to develop a program by Ohel staff members who knew of his work. “We realized that what we’ve done with drama — from the youngest kids to adults — can be applied to people with special needs,” Okin says. “It’s all about the same thing: confidence building, communications building, expressing creativity, taking risks, freeing their minds up to do things they didn’t think they could do.
“We do a tremendous amount of improv — it’s hard to explain what improv is, but they get it. In layman’s terms, it’s charades taken to a new level,” Okin says.
With high energy and inventiveness, two Black Box instructors, Mandy Decker and Giselle D’Souza, lead the group in a series of improvisational exercises and role-playing games, all punctuated with a round of applause for each participant’s effort.
On a recent Thursday, two groups of actors met for one-hour sessions. One group’s members were mostly in their 20s; the others were in their 30s, 40s and older. With the support of job counselors from Ohel, some hold jobs working in clothing or food shops. While some appear to be observant Jews, others are not; a few have Down syndrome, autism and other disabilities. All are attending out of their own choice and seem very happy to be in the room, attentive to Decker and D’Souza’s direction.
Each group starts with everyone seated in a circle, and participants are asked to say their names and favorite things in the world. Esti likes going out for dinner, Ari names ice cream. For Yoav, it’s a good movie and popcorn. Some hesitate, but Judy is clear: She loves acting. Then come charades. A volunteer is asked to act out something. The first player skates around the circle. The others are asked to raise their hands, but none can hold in their excitement so they shout out the answer. All applaud, and the first person to get it right goes to the center for a turn.
If someone doesn’t have an idea, Decker or D’Souza whisper a suggestion. If the person still resists, one of the teachers quickly offers to do it alongside. Thus the very quiet Mary was coaxed to become a receptionist, typing and answering phones. Again, a round of applause, and Mary applauds too.
“We’re trying to teach them life skills,” Rachel Lewitter, director of Ohel Bais Ezra says. “Role playing is an important way to learn. This gives them a different way to blossom, a safe way.”
“Acting — and the relationships with the teachers — helps bring them out,” adds Shira Cohen, manager of the Day Hab program. “They appreciate the spotlight.”
In another exercise, Decker instructs, “Say ‘I’m sorry’ as though you really care. Then do it again as though you don’t care.” Leah takes a turn and purrs the words, and then says them with a growl. Then Evelyn is asked to say hello as though she were happy, then sad, then angry. She turns her face into different shapes and speaks in low and high tones.
“You learn a lot from them,” says Joseph Cohen, one of the counselors for the group who sits in on the workshop. He notes that his group, which returns to another facility afterwards, likes to repeat some of the exercises in the van on the way back.
“These adults are very specific about the minute details of acting,” D’Souza says. An actress and teaching artist, she continues, “It’s something that other adults and kids might brush over. But when, for instance, they’re pretending to pour a cup of water, they’re attentive to the specifics and it’s thrilling. They begin with the specific detail and expand upon that. It’s the kind of things you’d want more actors to do.
“Theater gives you the ability to be someone you’re not. Everybody wants to do that, even for a second,” she says.
D’Souza, who has had experience with kids and teens and is working with special needs adults for the first time, gives a lot of credit to the staff at Ohel for the encouraging atmosphere they create.
“We’re teaching them the same way we would teach any first-time actors,” says Decker, a stage manager and acting teacher says. “You tell them, be sad here, and they understand.”
“I didn’t know what to expect the first week,” Decker continues. “But I had a small epiphany watching them. We started with a warm-up and I watched them work with each other and observed how they help each other, really watch out for each other, hold each other up, lean on each other. I saw in a moment that they can do everything I can do — they communicate, have feelings, they understand everything we say. The only thing that’s different is that sometimes they have difficulty expressing themselves in words. I just have to listen to them more carefully. We hope that teaching them acting will give them more communications options. That’s my goal.”
Decker says that Black Box is planning to do a production with the Ohel drama groups, perhaps working with a playwright to come up with a 15-minute one-act and then following that with a classic play. Evelyn offers that she once played Yente the matchmaker in “Fiddler on the Roof” in camp and says she would love to be in a play, if someone would help her read her lines. Alan wants to act in a soap opera.
Judy, who earlier announced that she loves acting, says, “I’ve always wished to be an actress. I’ll never stop. I wish to be a famous actress and I’m going to do the best I can.”
The actors get a lot of hugs from Decker and D’Souza.
“When you have acting,” David says, “then you forget about whether you had a bad day.”
“Their imaginations run wild when given the freedom to do this. They all come together and gather in a circle and just start doing things,” Okin says. “How many of us have the courage to do this?”