Robin Bennett
December 6, 2015

img_0176-1At this time of year with everyone sharing love and season’s tidings with family and friends, at work, at home and where they spend their time, 4th Wall Theatre Company has been considering what we are thankful for. Our instructors know how much they are appreciated, but we wanted to share the wealth of knowledge, experience and insight that 4th Wall instructors bring to the stage (and to countless other areas).

Each instructor (as of this publication 4th Wall employs 14) has been handpicked by 4th Wall co-founders Katie Mann & Annie Clark, who have themselves been featured on WDIV Channel 4 with Mitch Albom and Fox 2 News Detroit with Lee Thomas.
Recently, these instructors were each given a list of questions about their experiences and insight gathered from being a 4th Wall Theatre instructor. We are excited to share the answers to some of these questions with people who have experienced the magic of theater therapy through our company as well as with those who may be new to 4th Wall and questioning whether it could be a successful experience for their child with special needs.
First, let’s cover some facts about the instructors interviewed for this article:

  • There are 7 instructors commenting for the information included in this article.
  • The amount of time that these instructors have been teaching theatre for 4th Wall ranges from a few months as a co-instructor to 3 years as a lead.
  • At every 4th Wall workshop or event, there are at least two instructors present to engage with the participants; one lead instructor and one co-instructor. The lead instructor does things like plan the order of fun for the day, facilitate acting and singing games, and speak with parents to learn about their children and what special needs they may have. The co-instructor takes their cue from the lead to support them and provide whatever they need to create a successful environment for each participant.

Experience with Theater & Disabilities

The interviewed instructors were asked to share their experience not only with theater, but also with disabilities and people with special needs.

  • Molly says: “I grew up doing theatre and dance since I was 3. I was began co-choreographing when I was about 14, and really loved performing! The arts have always been a passion of mine! As for my involvement with children with special needs, I just love people in general and always have! I grew up 2 doors down from a girl with special needs, my mom was a teacher and we used to do a theatre project with the community school that I would help out with. When I heard about 4th wall, and my sister introduced me to Katie and Annie, I immediately fell in love with them, their program, and all of the people we work with.”
  • Hannah says: “I have a B.A. in Learning Disabilities K-12 and am certified to teach in the state of Michigan. I am currently working on my M.S. in Speech-Language Pathology and plan to work as an SLP in schools. I love working with kids, especially the special needs population! I wholeheartedly believe that every child is capable of being the very best version of themselves, and I want to help facilitate that journey.”
  • Taylor says: “I just got my degree in theatre, and I’m working on my Masters Degree in Applied Drama and Theatre for the Young. 4th Wall was my first experience with kids with special needs, and it helped me re-direct and sharpen my focus in the world of children’s theatre.”
  • Robin says: “As an individual with a physical disability I was always drawn to understand and help other people with different disabilities to have a successful and fulfilling life. I started volunteering in special needs classes like POHI when I was 12 and found that I had a special connection with kids dealing with cognitive and developmental impairment, so I stayed in the independent living and respite care field throughout my education and career. I also felt a draw to theater as a child and would not allow my physical differences to hold me back, minoring in theater arts at EMU. About three years ago I discovered 4th Wall Theatre Company and my two passions came together as one! I am so honored to be a part of this incredible organization!”
  • Jessica “I have a Bachelor’s in Special Education from MSU with a minor in theatre. I’m currently in my internship year with MSU and completing my student teaching in Rochester Community Schools. My passion for theatre sparked during high school, and I ended up attending a performing arts high school 10-12th grade. My passion for working with individuals with special needs started very young when my Uncle, who has Down syndrome, moved into my household with my family. Since then, I’ve taken every opportunity available to me to get more experience. I’ve worked as an intern at the Capital Area Down Syndrome Association, a program assistant for the Summer Fun program at Judson Center Autism Connections, a substitute teacher within schools over the Lansing and Metro Detroit areas, and a research assistant for a project with kids with Autism.”

Philosophy on Life

It’s an important question: What is your personal philosophy on life? 4th Wall wanted to know what drives our instructors to be the people that they are.

  • Jessica says: “Try, and try again.”
  • Molly  says: “Everyone has a story–learn from each other, empower and inspire each other, experience and create together, and always give love!’
  • Hannah says: “Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.” – Mary Oliver
  • Taylor says: “The glass is ALWAYS half full!”
  • Danielle says: “Never give up on your dreams.”
  • Robin says: “Don’t let the falls speak; make the story be about how you got back up.”

4th Wall Inspirational Stories

We wanted to know about the most inspirational moments as a 4th Wall instructors from our interviewees, and as soon as we heard them we knew that we should share them.

  • Danielle says:    “The most memorable moment I’ve had with 4th Wall happened while I was interning before I was even an instructor. I was helping at a class at the Greater Detroit Agency for the Blind and Visually Impaired and there were three students that were completely blind. I had never worked with anyone who was blind before and it was definitely a challenge. We were teaching them how to dance at school dances to songs like the Cha Cha Slide and Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae). Trying to explain the dance moves to someone who could not see them was illuminating. Dancing is something that I’ve done since I was a little kid and it was one of the main reasons I got into theatre. It was something that until that moment I had taken for granted. After we were done teaching the kids how to dance, we sat in a circle and all held rhythm sticks. We were creating different rhythmic patterns with the sticks and at that moment one of the girls I was sitting next to leaned over to me and said, “Ms. Danielle, today is the best day ever.” Seeing her smile and the fact that one simple hour long class could make such a difference in her day made me so proud to be a part of 4th Wall Theatre.”
  • Katie says: “I had a student who was non-verbal. He did talk in short sentences to his parents, but not to us. One day we brought out the rhythm sticks and he shone! He loved following the movements and was quite apt at it. Shortly thereafter he would answer simple questions during class. Love it!’
  • Taylor says: “There are just so many. One that always sticks with me is when one student, who was non-verbal, grabbed my arm to get my attention and signed that he was happy. This was really early on in my 4th Wall time, so it really enlightened me on how great this company was for kids who aren’t always able to express themselves in a way they’d like to.”
  • Hannah says: “We had a showcase performance this past spring at Grand Valley State University – it was incredible! The students in the program had grown so much over the past two months; it was amazing to see them perform so fearlessly. I will never forget their faces when they got a standing ovation.”

Finding confidence

The last question we asked our instructors was what challenges or limitations they saw most often for 4th Wall students and what they would tell parents to encourage them that their child could be successful; the answers were, amazingly, unanimous.

“The most frightening part of theatre is performing in front of strangers. This is a fear that even I still struggle with sometimes. But for someone who is not used to having all eyes on them or for a child with special needs who becomes overstimulated by extra attention easier than others, it can be ten times more frightening. That’s why my favorite 4th Wall rule is “be brave”. Theatre can be scary, but it also has the power to bring children out of their shells and instill confidence.”
“A lot of the students we work with lack self-confidence, often due to their academic or social abilities. However, that is exactly why they should join the program! 4th Wall gives students fun experiences in a safe environment, which helps them discover their strengths and build their self confidence.”
“Limitations aren’t something I focus on as a 4th Wall Instructor. But the biggest challenge I’ve personally noticed is students who aren’t comfortable speaking in front of big groups–which is something you see in students who are developing typically as well. A lot of these students don’t get the opportunity to explore this kind of thing, which can be intimidating to anybody, but the reward of confidence is always much greater.”`

And finally, it is all summed up best by 4th Wall cofounder Katie Mann saying, “Give it a try! Many students have never been presented the opportunity to rise to the occasion before. We have a kind, person-centered curriculum that will set the child up for success.”