By Jessica Lam
Replace the stage of seasoned actors with young, slightly green actors. These child actors may not be the Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsens of our generation, but they deserve some recognition. These talented kids are hospitalized. They may have disabilities, long-term diseases, or have other issues preventing them from enjoying childhood. Only Make Believe makes it their business to heal these kids by teaching them the art of theater.
Only Make Believe is a non-profit organization in NYC that interacts with local hospitalized children in entertaining and heartfelt ways. Hired actors perform free live theatre acts in hospitals and other care centers for children. The actors and volunteers, called Buddies, try to make them engaged by letting them dance, act, and sing in these plays.
“All of our shows are interactive, so we get the kids involved.” Dave Shih, an OMB actor, said. “They’ll dress up in costumes, we sing our theme song together, and the kids get to play characters in our stories.”
One of their current shows is The Story of Briar Rose. Briar Rose is a demanding young princess that is cursed to fall asleep. She wakes after 10 long years by being kissed by a handsome prince. Then, young princes and princesses, played by the kids, teach her lessons of patience and kindness.
Crowns and robes adorn kids as they escape their physical or emotional struggles for a day and be somewhere else. In the video on OMB’s website, a little girl in a wheelchair said, “It just makes you feel like [you’re] in a different place and you’re not here. You’re just somewhere else and you can forget about it. And nobody cares about anything.”
Dena Hammerstein, Broadway producer of The Seagull and Enron, began OMB in 1999 as a way to give back to the community. She decided to bring hospitalized children to a Broadway play, but then realized the difficulties in bringing them with their medical equipment and otherwise. She decided, then, that theater must instead be brought to these children.
Theater can mean so much to these kids. Melissa Moschiotto, the Volunteer Manager of the organization, said, “[We] give [kids] an opportunity to not be a patient or not be a sick kid for an hour and instead become a rock star or a superhero…and just have fun being a kid.”
Most of the sites OMB visits are old and new hospitals all around NYC, including Rusk Institute at NYU and Morgan Stanley Hospital. According to Rusk’s website, there are “multiple challenges involved in treating children with developmental disorders such as cerebral palsy, spina bifida, muscular dystrophy…and spinal cord injuries.” Not only are does a kid at a hospital face physical and mental challenges, a kid’s emotional health can be compromised as well.
Outside of hospitals, OMB also visited a new site for a couple weeks, the psychiatric center of the Family Center in Brooklyn, in March. Their kids come from trauma and have extreme behavioral diabilities. Emily Goodridge, the Buddy at the site, said, “A lot of them come from tough homes, a lot of poverty, single parents households, where there is drinking and drugs. There is a lot of inability of focus… hyperactivity and a little insanity.”
Kids may be introverted or reluctant to the activities at first, but they end up being involved and willing with the help of Buddies and the actors. They stay at a site for six weeks for 5 days a week, and a show is held every week. Buddies really want to talk and be friends with all the kids during the day, while 16 actors and the small office staff of eight at OMB take the more logistical side by rehearsing, planning the next site, finding volunteers, and more.
Irving Taurus, a former Buddy at the Children’s Hospital of Montefiorre, agreed that kids are resistant to changing sometimes. “In the beginning, they don’t want to participate. You have to be like it’s ok…if you want to say something, raise your hand and say something.” For those kids that participate too much and start getting wild, Irving would try to calm them down by going “look, look, look,” or “wait, wait wait” or look at what that actor did.
Kids are not the only ones that feel good in the process. Taurus connected with a legally blind child with the cartoon Dragon Ball Z, which they both liked watching. The child was shy, but was ecstatic when the show came on. He first brought this child out of his shell by telling him, “It’s ok. You can participate.”
At one of the shows, the kids were going up to dance, but the blind kid said, “No, no, no.” Another buddy asked him if he would go up if Irving goes up with him. “And so I did and he came up. I was dancing and he was dancing,” Taurus said. “It made me so happy. I can’t really explain it, but it made me happy.”
Goodridge also remembered happily encouraging more withdrawn kids. A little boy, Angel looked resentful at first. He thought he was too cool for the activities, and wouldn’t take off his backpack and jacket. He didn’t participate and would just roll his eyes. However, his love for dancing to hip-hop and Jay Z made him come out of his shell. “One day, I said, ‘Angel has some moves he wants to show us.’ He was shy at first, but became more comfortable as he went on.” Goodridge said.
Angel’s attitude changed since then, and he was more willing to engage. As a buddy, Goodridge felt extremely happy. “I feel like I played a small part of this when I said to him, ‘Hey, I think you can dance.’” Through these small actions, healing becomes more enjoyable for kids. Small actions become large as the reach of OMB grows larger.
OMB visited more than 4,500 kids in 2010, way more than its initial number of 132. For 13 years, it has stood by its goal of inspiring hospitalized children with theater. Naturally, many of these kids do not normally get the opportunity to watch and act in plays. It may be important for kids to have these experiences. Shih said, “Ultimately, hospitalized kids are still kids. I think that’s what Only Make Believe really has to offer them: a chance to just be a kid and have fun.”