Star Power

Theatrical training produces dramatic benefits for speech therapy clients

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By Linda Strowbridge  |  Photos by LaKaye Mbah
Kids in class

Ding, dong! The witch is dead. Which old witch? The wicked witch!

Happy voices zip through a string of Wizard of Oz songs, deftly switching between choral singing, small solos, and interspersed lines of spoken word. The children waddle like penguins, twirl like ballerinas, plunge to the floor at the sound of a thunderclap, and hustle to execute other choreography moves. On cue, one small boy jets to the front of the room, eagerly urging his friends to “C’mon, c’mon” so they can begin to stomp, waggle, and sing their way through the Lollipop Guild’s welcome song.

This is a speech therapy class. But don’t tell the performers that.

The Loyola Clinical Centers and the Columbia Center for Theatrical Arts (CCTA) have partnered to develop a “Kids on Broadway” afterschool program for children with autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, and other conditions that lead to speech and social disorders. The 13-week program, geared for children between the ages of 10 and 14, is designed to focus on key speech skills, such as eye contact, appropriate volume, intelligibility, and turn-taking. But it’s also a giddy, fast-paced drive to create and rehearse an abbreviated version of The Wizard of Oz for a spring performance.

The program’s concept took shape last summer when Janet Simon Schreck, director of the Clinical Centers, and Toby Orenstein, founder of the CCTA and Toby’s Dinner Theatre, began chatting over cake at the Columbia Foundation Gala.

“We started talking about how powerful it might be to combine speech pathology and drama in terms of treating kids with autism because a lot of them actually do better if they assume a persona,” Simon Schreck said.

The repeated rehearsals and overt instructions involved in a theater production, she suggested, might also help children learn communication skills that eluded them in less-structured settings.

Orenstein jumped on the idea.

“I am a firm believer that theater arts is the way to reach every child, to reach disadvantaged children, to reach handicapped children,” she said. “I just know from working on a smaller scale with children who have Asperger’s or are autistic that music and repetitiveness frees up the child and gives them confidence to communicate.”A few months later, the two new partners launched Kids on Broadway, a version of an existing CCTA youth program modified to meet the needs of Loyola clients. Taught by CCTA staff and speech-language pathology graduate students, the weekly 75-minute class enabled seven students—five with disabilities, as well as the typically developing siblings of two Clinical Centers clients—to produce an abridged version of High School Musical.

“The kids learned the material so quickly that we were able to add more song and dance numbers to the show,” said Erin Stauder, program coordinator and a member of the Clinical Centers clinical faculty.

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