Drama helps special needs children find their voicesDrama helps special needs children find their voices
At a final rehearsal for a youth theatre production, one small child hops left as everyone else moves right. A hand gently guides him back, then tugs him down to join the other actors crouching on the floor. No one grumbles or suggests that he’s dropped from the cast, because the child is autistic.
Besides, look at his face – you can see how much he’s loving it.
The show they were rehearsing was far from perfect, because it included a young actor or two who can barely speak, a profoundly deaf boy and a girl whose movements are hampered by Downs Syndrome.
But it was a major achievement and an impossibly proud moment for the parents, who never expected to see their special needs sons and daughters taking a bow in the limelight.
These are pupils at the Journey School of the Arts in Sandhurst, where theatre, dance and music form the core of the curriculum to help special needs children literally find their own voices.
The school was founded 18 months ago by Gemma Donnelly, an ex-pat British actress, drama teacher and choreographer.
Some special needs children are naturally drawn to the arts, but most remedial schools don‘t offer such subjects because they focus on academia, Donnelly says. “There’s a huge gap in arts education for children with special needs, and having given my life to performing and loving it so much it’s important that every child feels that moment of stardom for themselves, even if it’s only two lines in a play.”
Journey develops a customised curriculum for each pupil so they can work at their own pace, while a specialist teacher addresses each child’s weaknesses to ensure they are working to their full potential.
Using drama and song with hearing impaired children helps them learn to speak, although it’s often difficult for the audience to understand them, Donnelly says. Even so, encouraging them to perform improves self-confidence as well as their ability to communicate, and is a fun way of boosting their creativity and development.
“Because they are often in their shell they don’t respond when someone speaks to them, but drama make them have conversations with eye contact and it’s a great tool for them,” she says.
Gemma’s mother Jackie had worked in British primary schools teaching children who were blind, hearing impaired, autistic or had Downs Syndrome. Her coaching helped 90% of those youngsters fit into mainstream high schools.
Then Jackie followed her daughter to South Africa, and everything gelled when they met Kim Rundle. Rundle specialises in remedial education, art and drama and has three special needs children of her own. She was burning to create an alternative school after being dissatisfied by various remedial options for her own kids. Together the three women launched the Journey School.
Eighteen months later Kim’s daughter Sammi has advanced three grades academically. At first she was incredibly introverted and could not have a conversation. Her body was almost doubled over, she was very lonely, unable to read, had a short term memory and needed anti-anxiety medication.
Now she is off all medication, her speech has improved, and her short term memory is good enough to remember full songs and dance routines.
But perhaps the most striking pupil is lively Jadyn Fredicks, who was four when his hearing began to fade. He was fitted with hearing aids but the private school his parents enrolled him in could not cope. He was switched to a Montessori school, but after he became profoundly deaf the school recommended that his parents find a more specialised school.
“There are so few schools available for children with learning challenges and even fewer that could cater for Jadyn,” said his father James. “We decided that Journey would be the one. Since January 2010 we have seen Jadyn blossom in all areas. We did not find a school for Jadyn at Journey School of Arts but rather a home. Jadyn is not just speaking well now - he is singing.”
Classes run from 8am until 1.30pm with the pupils following a computer-based curriculum. On the arts side they enjoy painting, singing, music, drama and dance, life coaching, poetry, horse riding, swimming and social skills development. Optional extras include guitar, drums and piano lessons.
The resident music teacher is Matthew Marinus who plays for the Graeme Watkins Project, Zebra and Giraffe and his own band, Sergeant Fu. “I have a big passion for helping children to discover what they want for when they grow up,” Marinus said. “They need the freedom to be self-expressive in an environment where they aren’t being ripped off by other people. I can live my dreams and help children find out what they want to do because there’s something special in every one of us.”
Now the school has recruited musician Graeme Watkins as its ambassador. “The work these people do is incredible,” he says. “After suffering from ADHD and Dyslexia my whole life, I realise how important the arts are to children with special needs. Journey allows children to grow creatively, which is why I'm excited about being the patron.”
Watkins became involved when he watched some of the children perform as extras in a music video recorded by Sergeant Fu.
Because the school’s three founders believe that special needs children should interact with the able bodied as much as possible, they also run StageWorx, a performing arts school offering after-hours drama lessons for ‘ordinary’ kids.
“StageWorx recognises that children are children, no matter what their specific needs, and youngsters from special needs schools need to mix with other children their age as there is so much they can learn from each other,” Donnelly says. “The special needs and able bodied learn to communicate and work together as a team on stage whilst learning the tools necessary for a show.”
The StageWorx training programme brings in TV and theatre professionals to work with the students, who are also encouraged to audition and perform professionally. Last year six students were chosen to perform in The Boys in the Photograph musical at Joburg Theatre.
The pupils also take the internationally recognised Trinity Musical Theatre Examinations. Donnelly was the first teacher in Johannesburg to successfully enter a student with Downs Syndrome and autism in the exam two years ago.
“This year we are entering everyone, so there are autistic children and kids with severe ADHD all getting the opportunity to enter,” she said.
Donnelly’s own theatre credits include Mamma Mia, The Boys in the Photograph, Hairspray, Footloose, The Buddy Holly Story, My Fair Lady and Fiddler on the Roof.
While StageWorx has 45 young students, Journey School itself can only accommodate five full-time pupils because of limited resources.
The progress those children have made is incredible, their parents say. The show Sammi, Jadyn and their classmates presented at the Joburg Promusica Theatre was the Wizard of Fu, a reworked Wizard of Oz.
Profits from the show will be used to buy much-needed equipment. “We need a bigger building, we need computers, trampolines, drums and sound equipment,” Rundle said.
Wizard of Fu is tale of triumph over adversity, and was created because staging a professional production starring both able bodied and special needs children was a triumphant in itself.
“While I miss that adrenalin rush of being on stage every night, I feel as if I've found my calling,” Donnelly says. “There is no greater sense of achievement than seeing these learners’ faces light up when they've achieved one of their goals.”