December 02, 2012

Ailing Children Escape Into Make Believe With Help From Actors

Courtesy of Only Make Believe

Some of New York City’s actors are not treading the boards of Broadway or popping up in a supporting role on CSI: New York. Instead, they are performing inside hospital rooms, sharing the floor with chronically ill or disabled children who are transformed into mermaids, queens, and superheroes with the help of a trunk full of simple props and costumes.

The children are participating in a theatrical workshop organized by Only Make Believe, a group founded in 1999 by Dena Hammerstein, a former actress who dedicated the group to her late husband, James, a theater director and producer. The group’s name comes from a song in Show Boat, a musical written by Oscar Hammerstein II—Ms. Hammerstein’s late father-in-law—and Jerome Kern.

“It’s very simple what we do,” says Ms. Hammerstein. “We give them a kind of freedom to laugh and forget their surroundings for the hour.”

Each six-week workshop consists of an introduction to theater and a finale performance, with four separate hour-long plays in between that the actors and children perform together.

In the shows, the children might help a space detective find a lost key, or make an ice queen laugh so it will snow and save her melting IceLand. An intermission with music breaks up the hour, and the children are encouraged to move around or dance if they are able. The hospital gets to keep the trunk of costumes after the workshop is over.

While the plays are intended for fun, sometimes children take away additional meaning. One show touches on how a boy overcomes his fear of the dark. As part of the play, the children learn a song that goes with the plot. “We hear of kids going into surgery singing that song to themselves and it is unbelievably gratifying,” says Ms. Hammerstein.

In her own youth, the magic of theater provided an escape for Ms. Hammerstein, who grew up in an orphanage in England. Seeing a play during that time gave her “many a happy night,” she remembers, and inspired her career choice. During her theater training, Ms. Hammerstein performed at schools, sometimes for children with mental or physical ailments.

The workshops are provided free to 40 New York and Washington organizations. The group’s budget, $1.2-million, comes mostly from individuals and corporations, with more than half the amount raised at its annual gala, which often includes appearances by some of Ms. Hammerstein’s famous theater friends, such as the British actor Ian McKellen.

Hospitals can be lonely, scary places, but the theater workshops provide a bonding experience that helps the young patients support one another, says Ms. Hammerstein.

“They feel a sense of belonging to the show and to each other,” she says. “When you hear your fellow kids’ applause, it makes you feel good, and in turn you pass that feeling on.”

Here, a program participant received a temporary tattoo from a volunteer during a cast party.