"We're in the room with an electric piano and percussion instruments, playing and singing, using words we just made up on a theme for the day: 'How Beautiful the World is Because of You.' The kids come in the room, joinging the music and singing:
"POW, you're a rainbow.
"ZIP, you're a star.
"OOO, you're wonderful just being who you are.
"POSH, you're a brand new sun up in outer space.
"AHH, you spread your love light all over this place."
Robert Alexander, director of Arena's Living Stage, is describing the scene of a recent improvisational theater workshop the company conducted for handicapped children of Fairhill and Franklin Sherman elementary schools in Fairfax County.
"We stop then and introduce ourselves and get their names," he continues. "Then we go right into a scene we have made up, using poetry, music and movement. At a dramatic point we freeze the action and ask the children to give us an ending, continuing to work with that for a while."
By this time, he said, the children are catching on to the act of creating.
"They throw out words, telling us something they'd like to be: winter, snow, a city.We create a shopping center for them and they become things. One's a Christmas tree, another's a cat who's cold in the snow."
Alexander and his four actors - two men, two women - are conducting the workshops as part of an $82,000 grant made to Living Stage by the U.S. Office of Education.
The money was given to "conduct an innovative 12-month demonstration program of theater workshops for young physically handicapped children in Fairfax."
Alexander describes his improvisational group as "a social service theater company. We work with forgotten people in the world: senior citizens, prisoners, the handicapped. Our work is unique because we use the body to help people discover and revere their strength, beauty and dignity.
"Improvisation is based on feelings - body, voice, mind, heart. We help children understand that their thoughts and feelings are important. Kids are all primitive poets with a lot to say about themselves and their environment."
For about five years, Alexander and Living Stage have been working in D.C. and Maryland schools with blind, deaf, emotionally disturbed, and physically handicapped students. This year's project, their first in Virginia, runs from October to May and involves 3-to-4-year-olds in Fairhill and 7-to 8-year-olds in franklin Sherman.
"What's great is having a whole year to work with the same children, their parents, teachers, and therapists," Alexander said. The Fairfax grant involves teachers and therapists as equal participants in each once-a-week improvisational session. The children's parents are brought in every other week for a two-hour workshop of their own with the company.
"Adults in life are often party poopers. Their energy, spontaneity, and poetic senses are usually duller. Their emotional honesty is not in as good a shape as their kids'. We try to turn parents on to their own creativity, to give both children and parents a similar emotional vocabulary to share," he said.
By the end of the year, Alexander said he wants the handicapped youngsters "to know they are all creative human beings and can communicate their feelings and thoughts. They should realize that they can take their place in society as full functioning citizens of our world, and feel there are no limitations regardless of their physical disabilities."