Robin Bennett
November 30, 2016

As the holidays approach, 4th Wall partners again with the Down’s Syndrome Guild (DSG) of southeast Michigan to prepare them for a performance in the Downtown Rochester Christmas Parade on December 4. This group has performed on a variety of different stages during their relationship with us. I am reminded of a special performance I was invited to this past summer starring the DSG. The nine participants took to the stage after a weeklong workshop at the Detroit Opera House. I was excited to see how the performance would look at a venue like this, as I have never taught a workshop in a working theater. But, some last minute changes took me from being in the audience to being backstage with the performers. As 4th Wall knows well, “the show must go on!” And indeed it did.

img_71534th Wall has had a growing relationship with the Detroit Opera House (DOH) for several years now. The DOH contributes one of the more typical theatrical stages to our growing roster of community partners. However, our company contracts with schools, organizations, libraries, and many more throughout southeast Michigan. We are constantly adapting to different venues and finding creative ways to make a theatrical stamp wherever we serve.

This time the task was simple; watch the performance from a comfortable theater seat in preparation of writing a blog about how 4th Wall Theatre Co. adapts to changing venues. But, when news came the morning of the show that an instructor had fallen ill and would not be able to attend the performance, I was called on to be backsage. The phrase “I was called on” can be taken quite literally; I received a call when on the highway going to the opera house (running late, by the way!).

Taking the Stage

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Upon arriving at the DOH, I made my way to the third floor where the show was taking place (barely on time, phew!). Immediately shuffled backstage, I was not able to see the performance space before the show. However, when I finally did see it, peeking through the curtains, I was impressed with the choice of this particular stage. The floor had a gentle slope that created a stage for the performers to be seen on, but allowed for a safe step off. This came in handy for this particular group, as many people with Down’s Syndrome have vision challenges.

4th Wall instructors know how best to adapt a stage setting to complement our students, as well as in consideration of any limitations or safety challenges. While working a class at the Ann Arbor Public Library, I witnessed a lead instructor create success for a student in a wheelchair when we were given a space to perform with stairs. The instructor placed able-bodied students at different levels of the stairs and on the floor so as not to bring attention to the fact that performers with mobility challenges could not climb the stairs to the stage.

The nine performers in the DSG workshop were split into three different groups, each with its own theme and costuming for the majority of the show. I could see that the instructors had done this on purpose. I was only able to meet the students for a few minutes before the show began, however it was clear that they each had a very different personality and performance style. 4th Wall goes out of our way at every workshop to allow students to create their own characters and type of show that they want to perform. This allows students to really take ownership of their actions on stage and be proud of what they presented, because it is their creation!

Backstage Secrets

img_7167Before the performance even started, I got to see theatre magic in action. In the professional dressing room, complete with lighted mirrors and vanities for each actor, the DSG students were getting ready for their big performance. You could see in each of their faces that they were nervous as they finished up with a touch of lipstick or a comb through the hair. Their instructors could see it, too.

Miss KK asked them to line up and prepare to go on stage, and a few students became giddy with nerves. I watched as she approached and said soothingly to the group, “Now, actors, let’s remember to take the butterflies making us nervous out of our stomachs and put them on our shoulders so that we can fly!” All of the students, now full-fledged performers, gave relieved sighs when they heard the familiar advice.

Self-soothing tools are introduced early and are repeated throughout the run of a workshop. This is done so that when a phrase or exercise is used, students are already familiar and comfortable with its concept. We are aware that our students know best what they need when they are agitated, so each tool might be specific to a student; an uplifting phrase might do well for a group, where there may be one individual who needs a break to pace out their anxiety.

The program was set up so that the nine students would take the stage for an opening number, then break up into smaller groups for themed dance performances. Each group of three was focused on getting ready while being respectful of the people on stage. Normally, performers have to be reminded again and again to be quiet in the backstage wings during the show. Not the DSG; these performers were on their game and did not need to be asked!

While the individual groups were each onstage, I had the opportunity to hang backstage with the remaining performers. There are many similarities between performers, regardless of how familiar they are with the stage. I have seen actors backstage in college and professional theatre, as well as as an instructor for 4th Wall: the contrast between the anticipation before a performer goes onstage and the joy after they come off is the same across all experiences.

Seeing the Show from the Sidelines

4thwalloh-38jpg_28900777310_oIt may have been destiny for me to be a part of the DSG show from behind the scenes. It was such a new perspective for me as an instructor, but also as an audience member, seeing both views for the first time. Watching with fresh eyes as this group performed was so special having seen all the work that they put into it before they ever got onstage.

4th Wall makes stars out of its students! But, it is how we create stars that makes us special. Whether it be at a parade or on a professional stage, our performers can be exactly who they are and take pride that they have earned every round of applause! Perhaps, I will attend this year’s Rochester Hills Parade and cheer from the sidelines or be recruited to march and dance beside some world class performers!