Part1: A Day of Peace 

On Wednesday nights, in the wood-paneled basement of the Ravenswood Presbyterian Church, situated in a maze of dining tables, a troupe of actors begin their weekly work of planning a piece of improvised theater. Their eventual stage is just steps away, along with a fragrant kitchen, praying church groups and a thousand other distractions. However, the woman who heads up this crop of Still Point Theatre Collective’s Ravenswood Players has assured us that once we begin brainstorming for the show, the evening turns into a soothing respite form everything else. It’s interesting just how little that the group humors those pangs of worry and panic that often accompany theater productions. 

Around our table is a core group of performers and facilitators, and the lines between those roles have been smudged to be delightfully blurry. Can you sing a song? Tell a joke? Supply a prop or costume? Read a poem? No matter what your ability, you are included and soon committed to bringing this season’s feature, “Letters to Santa”, to life.  

It’s sometimes a feat getting every performer engaged on the same subject, and Senior Facilitator Laura Callahan-Hazard juggles that feat every week with skill. She is joined by perennial participants from disability focused programs (such as Chicago-based Neumann Family Services and Search Inc.), independent care situations, and a number of supporters and loved ones, soon to be performing alongside their friends. The group this Wednesday is small, mostly returning performers and a few new recruits gathered. Laura kicks the evening off with the invitation to stand up and shake off any stress from the day physically, demonstrating with lots of jostling. Then she takes a question around the table, noting everyone’s answers; “What makes you happy?”

Because players can be anywhere on the verbal communication scale, sometimes depending on the day they’ve had, how annoyed or engaged they feel, etc. Laura has some old responses at the ready. For performer Jenny Gawelczyk, who is mostly non-verbal and struggles to remember words, all she needs is a hint. Laura leans in and asks her “How about puppies? Or babies?” and Jenny lights up instantly. Others, like Lynnette Hawthorne and Bryan Garb turn to their art of choice, painting for Lynnette and singing for Bryan. First time recruits from Neumann Family services Victoria J. and Avery Nowosad are both media savvy and unabashedly vocal. Avery’s a film buff  (can recite all the songs from Nightmare before Christmas) and tells us laughter makes him the happiest, and Victoria says her many friends do the trick, but gifts from the store that shares her name, Victoria’s Secret, will do in a pinch.

Rounding out our circle are Chris Carollo and Andrew Hazard, facilitators, actors, and caretakers in part to several independently participating performers. Chris, Andrew and Laura are on hand to strike up conversation, prompt ideas, step in if there’s a disagreement, or when words fail. When Laura asks “Bryan, what would you like to do?” and Bryan is unable to respond, it is his friend and caretaker Chris who leans in to suggest, “You like singing, don’t you Bryan?” which Bryan can confirm: oh, yes. 

Laura’s red pen scribbles furiously for each new ability and happy thought, and in the next week, their additions have been compiled into a poem, ‘Happy Thoughts’ which Laura and Lynnette recite. In the process of writing this poem, Laura has helped the group ferret out their show’s premise: Santa, Mrs. Claus and some fringe elves have a stack of problematic letters for intangible gifts, and must fulfil wishes for a day of joy, a day of laughter, and a day of peace. The troupe has twelve weeks to craft that idea into a series of short vignettes to round out their 30 minute production.

 

Part 2: A Day of Laughter

The Still Point Theater Collective has been a Chicago institution for nearly 21 years, with a focus on theater that gives a voice to those that have no voice. Founder Lisa Wagner has crafted productions that highlight social justice for outreach to schools, prisons and other communities of the disenfranchised of Chicago. The Imagination Workshop was developed in 1992 as a performance venue specifically for adults with disabilities.

Still Point funds the Ravenswood Players and other Imagination Workshops in the Chicagoland area by charitable donation to the Dale & Martha Cooper Fund. Those who give to Still Point, or provide a donation during an Imagination Workshop production are ensuring that the program continues, and that participants can rehearse and perform for a small fee. Donations can cover or offset the fee for any performer in need; ensuring no performer is turned away based on their ability to pay. Provided that they have means of getting to the church basement each week, Imagination Workshops are open to anyone itching to get onstage.

Sadly, getting there can be the tough part. When scheduling conflicts arise or a performers’ residence has a cut in programming, participants can drop out without a word of notice. Attendance dropped off on a Wednesday in early October when a partner organization, Search, Inc. dedicated to providing housing, transport and jobs to adults with disabilities, cut the winter workshop from their programming, citing lack of interest and lack of funds. In a breath, the players had lost 4 actors that had begun the week before. Despite the instance withdrawal, Search still continues to support many other Imagination Workshop sessions, even concurrently running groups organized by Still Point. Larger residences like Search are also key for drumming up audience members for the players; who better for actors to invite but their residence roommates and classmates?

Cold feet, stage fright, or the obligation of attendance can weigh heavy on players who do not have the support of their communities. It’s an easy thing to say yes for those actors who can rely on transport or even the comfort of familiar faces taking the stage with them. Take those comforts away, and some, such as Victoria J., can drop off the roster; it’s not always easy for players to break into a new social circle.

Others, like Lynette & Jenny work with Laura and Andrew in an SLA or Shared Living Arrangement scenario, and have a much easier time navigating their involvement. Interestingly, Laura happens to be in the process of hosting another, suburban based Imagination Workshop troupe, and cites it as one of her best attended workshops. No matter how fortunate or well-planned each outing is, she seems to embrace the bounty or the deficit and let the piece form how it will.

There’s still a wealth of ideas and abilities at their disposal; Avery has a mastery over the twisting, turning lyrics of ‘Mr. Grinch’ after just a few listens. Andy is a repository of Santa trivia and jokes. Jenny will gladly dance, so long as you engage her attention and ask, and with such glee, not even Avery bemoaning, “That’s embarrassing” could stop her. The show must go on, no matter what shape it takes.

 

Pt 3: A Day of Joy

Laura began her sessions with the intention of teaching ‘intention’ and other skills to help the players take up the task of playing characters. For this production, namely magical, arctic dwelling elves and carolers. “How do we get what we want?” she’d ask, “What would your character do differently than you?” The working premise developed from vignettes developed at the rehearsal table on the fly: What is in your letter to Santa? What have you asked for that money can’t buy? And of course, have you been naughty or nice this year?

Focus on other performers and their given scenario, be it caroling for the local holiday grump or compiling children’s letters to Santa with the other elves, was also key. Try holding a fake phone conversation, or adding items to an imaginary stew, Laura would encourage.  Or just try to identify if canny improvisers like Lynnette are making sad or angry faces. These exercises would narrow each week as the premise took hold, and was given legs on a week in November when the troupe took their show out of the theoretical to see how it looked on the small, wood-paneled stage.

Flyers? Check. Elf hats? Check. Programs? Check. Anxiety? Well, it naturally creeps in with the addition of props, costumes and other portents of the live audience approaching. But, possibly because most of the players have had years of experience, there’s a welcome calmness among the cast on the eve of ‘Letters to Santa’. The house has been packed with family, friends, Still Point supporters, and some smiling faces from newer partner, Neumann Family Services keen to see their client Avery take the stage.  

The transformations are nothing short of astounding. The warmth of a proud audience does wonders for each of the players; Brian takes his Christmas carol solo from a whisper to a belt once he realizes he’s got the ears of a rapt audience. Lynnette reads aloud from their group composed poem, scooping up the microphone without a moment’s hesitation. Jenny dances unprompted and has no problem with the habit that troubled her most: cheating out to face us (as Laura would often remind the players, “face forward guys, no butts!”). Avery proved himself every bit the skilled improviser, swapping insults and jokes with the facilitators, despite his own doubts. If there’s one thing Laura and her team can rely on, it’s not always their venue or their funds or their partnering companies, but their players who deliver their utmost for every production.    

For more information about the Still Point Theater Collective, Imagination Workshops, or the Ravenswood Players, please visit www.stillpointtheatercollective.org

Sean Margaret is a Chicago playwright, musical bookwriter/lyricist and storyteller. You can find her on Twitter: @SMargaretWagner

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