Everyone was in a Yes mood that Wednesday until a mysterious leprechaun let a No get loose in the room. It was then discovered that indeed, a No was stuck in every mouth. So a quick trip was arranged to the Land of AAchoo to sneeze the culprits out. Two very stubborn Nos remained in Katrina Coghill and Michelle Dove, so Bobetta Ricks doctored their throats.
The Land of AAchoo is filled with the mundane matters of life, such as runny noses, funny hats and snaggle teeth. But there are unusual items, too, such as miniature wheelchairs and metal braces, but these can be made to disappear in this land of imagination.
The Land of AAchoo is the creation of 14 orthopedically handicapped 4- to 7-year-olds at the Sharpe Health School in upper Northwest. For the past three years, these children have been working with the acting crew of Living Stage, the 15-year-old community outreach branch of Arena Stage. The energetic nine-member troupe has enabled these children to push aside their walkers and protective helmets and give up their introversion to create a world where nothing is a barrier.
It has been said that play is children's work, and indeed, on Wednesday mornings these children go about the serious business of learning to think for themselves and build self-esteem through their play.
"Are we all beautiful?" asks Rebecca Rice, associate director of the troupe. "Yes," the children shout back.
Many of the handicapped children entering the class don't respond to speech or touch, says Wendy Haynes, Living Stage's coordinator for the project. But she says that in a matter of weeks or months they learn to behave more like normal children, an asset that carries over into the classroom, their teachers report.
Rice explains that these children -- with handicaps cause by diseases such as spina bifida and cerebral palsy, often accompanied by speech and hearing problems -- "are always reminded of what they can't do. We want to show them possibilities they never knew existed . . . to allow them to begin loving their bodies . . . (and) to sense there is no one who isn't valuable in the world."
And so Rice and company go about helping the children create skits about their lives and compose their own songs. As the session picks up momentum, some of the children slide out of their wheelchairs, and crawl freely about the room.
The group was revisited recently by one of the children's favorite people, Henry Holden, an actor from New York City who is also a clown and acrobat. Holden had polio as a child and still uses crutches. One also might have thought him part magician after he enticed Marc Johnson -- who looked like a miniature man in glasses and a navy sports jacket -- into a lively jig, crutches and all.
He's special, says Haynes, because "he is a positive role model for the children," many of whom cannot imagine themselves as adults and may never have seen a handicapped adult.
The troupe's work with the Sharpe children is a pilot project that has been sponsored by the U.S. Office of Education for the last three years. This year's $133,000 grant pays salaries, transportation and equipment for workshops in other cities, at which troupe members explain how improvisational theater can help handicapped children.
Living Stage's talents are amazingly adaptable. The performers also work with Lorton Reformatory inmates and prisoners at the D.D. jail.
Triumphs of Living Stage at Sharpe Health and another school in Fairfax, Va., may come to an end when the government grant runs out at the end of the year. Haynes is trying to find new funding through private companies and foundations. But she says, "We're worried, we're in trouble."