Cross-discipline production of ‘Wizard of Oz’ at CU Boulder inspires confidence in actors with aphasia
The true courage is in facing danger when you are afraid. — L. Frank Baum, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”
One of the key themes in the 1900 children’s novel, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz—the first of L. Frank Baum’s classic series of children’s stories set in his mythical land, and the book behind the enduringly popular 1939 film, The Wizard of Oz—is the young protagonist Dorothy’s recognition of her own agency.
Whirled off to Oz by a terrifying storm, Dorothy wants nothing more than to return home to her family in Kansas. But only after an epic journey with a curious collection of friends—an animate scarecrow, living tin man and cowardly lion—is she able to see herself clearly.
“Dorothy had the power to go home all along, but she didn’t know it,” says Christina Riseman, a clinical faculty member and therapist in the speech, language and hearing sciences department at the University of Colorado Boulder.
Clients of a CU Boulder therapy group for aphasia—a neurological condition, often caused by stroke, that impairs the ability to speak and understand language—undertook their own journey to epiphany in fall semester 2019, rehearsing and performing in a production of The Wizard of Oz, a collaboration between the departments of speech, language and hearing sciences and theatre and dance.
“One of the people who played Dorothy,” Riseman recalls, tearing up, “was not particularly confident in her communicative abilities, but actually turned out to be a great communicator. At first, she thought, ‘No way, no how,’ but here she is pulling off one of the lead roles in such an amazing way and coming out so much more positive, thinking she could do much more.”
The first bricks on this collaborative yellow-brick road were laid in a couple of far-away lands: Chicago’s Center for Aphasia Research and Treatment, where drama therapy has improved client communication and mood; and the Adler Aphasia Center in Maywood, New Jersey, where Riseman’s mother had been a client following a 2007 stroke and speech-language pathologists used theatrical productions as part of their therapy program.
After a previous client mentioned the idea, Riseman and her fellow clinical faculty member and speech-language therapist Holly Kleiber contacted both centers to explore whether they might do the same at CU Boulder.
“Sure, we can do this crazy idea,” Riseman concluded. “Except we really don’t have that acting experience.”
And so, much like Dorothy, Riseman and Kleiber set about gathering faithful companions for the journey ahead. Jen Lewon, clinical assistant professor in the department, sent an email to her sometime-collaborator, Associate Professor of Theatre Beth Osnes. Osnes posted to the department email list seeking interested faculty and students.
The project caught the attention of Associate Professor Oliver Gerland and doctoral student Gillian Nogeire, who had written her master’s thesis on the value of teaching Shakespeare in prisons. Having studied cognitive neuroscience research, she knew that theater could be a tool to develop empathy, confidence and a host of other qualities.
“I wanted to do more outside the department in the field of science, to expand on and learn more about what happens in the brain when you do theater,” she says.
Gerland, Kleiber, Nogeire, Riseman, with an occasional assist from Lewon, began meeting in spring semester 2019 to ponder possibilities. By summer, they had found funding for the project through the MINDSOURCE Brain Injury Network at the Colorado Department of Human Services. By fall, the therapists were asking members of their therapy group what kind of play they’d like to perform.
“We knew it was going to be a devised piece”—a collaborative, rather than strictly scripted, work sometimes referred to as collective creation—“and we presented two options, a show about aphasia, or a story that didn’t have anything to do with aphasia,” Gerland says.
“But regardless of what kind of show you do, ultimately, it’s going to be about the people on stage, and if the people on stage have aphasia, it’s going to be in some way about aphasia.”
The clients floated various ideas, finally settling on the Wizard of Oz. Nogeire was soon meeting with 15 speech, language and hearing sciences clinical graduate students, coaching them on how to lead weekly rehearsals, beginning with basic theater exercises and advancing week to week.
“The way Gillian set it up, it was so well scaffolded,” Riseman says. “Initially, it seemed to (the performers) that they were just playing games, and they didn’t really see how it relates to a play. … Gradually, it turned into something quite amazing.”
As dress rehearsals for the Dec. 7 performance approached, theatre and dance students joined the production to help with wardrobe, lighting and filling out the cast as the Wicked Witch of the West’s cadre of flying monkeys.
As the performers gained confidence, they began adding people to their lists of invited guests.
“Part of project was to help them get back to active life so they feel they are meaningful and participating in society again,” Kleiber says. “It was really nice to see the audience getting larger and larger because it meant individuals had something to look forward to, to be proud of. It was something to give to their families, not just ‘I need a ride to therapy.’ It became, ‘I’ve been working really hard on this, I want to entertain you, show you something I’m proud of.’”
Finally, on Dec. 7, the cast took the stage in three adjoined multi-purpose rooms at Kittredge Central Hall, with a fourth serving as a backstage area, performing before an audience of some 200 family members, friends, students, faculty, staff and others, to rousing applause.
The cast’s confidence didn’t ebb after the curtain fell. One man reported that he’d been cured of his lifelong stage fright, while others, embracing the camaraderie they’d developed, some began spending time together outside therapy. And while the play may have only marginally improved their speaking ability, it greatly expanded their ability to communicate.
Theater is a way that you perform not just with a voice, but with emotions, hands, feet, multiple communication channels."
“Doing a play that was not about aphasia released them, creating a kind of space for them to inhabit with their imagination,” Gerland says. “Theater is a way that you perform not just with a voice, but with emotions, hands, feet, multiple communication channels.”
Nogeire, who also teaches undergraduate acting classes, came to see the cast as particularly well suited for acting.
“Because they had to develop strength and courage living with aphasia, they were almost more prepared to be actors than acting students,” she says. “They have the courage to be vulnerable, in the moment, on stage. They weren’t just actors. I was working with artists who were courageous.”
Although currently stymied by the coronavirus pandemic, the collaborators have “every plan” to mount productions with future therapy clients. Meanwhile, Kleiber and Riseman collected data through before-and-after surveys of cast members and their families, to document changes in communication and thinking skills, emotions and social relationships.
“This kind of project is what we should be doing at CU Boulder,” Gerland says. “The ability to work across disciplinary divides, involving so many different people, faculty, students. It’s a service project, an art project, and educational project, and a wonderful example of what the College of Arts and Sciences can do.”