by NADRA NITTLE
“If he’d spin in circles, we’d play Ring-Around-the-Rosie,” Hall recalls. “If he stared at his hand, I’d stare at my hand. Traditional therapists thought I was loony.”
But eventually, she says, autism experts encouraged her to continue connecting with her son, Neal, in this way. Before long, he began to break out of his bubble of isolation. Inspired by his progress, Hall set out to use her background as an acting coach to help children with autism and other special needs participate in theatrical performance.
With the help of a grant, Hall launched The Miracle Project in 2004 — a theater, film, and expressive arts program for students of all abilities. Children and teens with autism, cerebral palsy, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and Tourette syndrome have taken part in the program since its inception. In 2007, the unique efforts of The Miracle Project were featured in the independent documentary film,Autism: The Musical.
“We open our doors to anyone who genuinely would not have the opportunity to be in a theater production,” says Hall, who now serves as Creative Director for the program.
The Miracle Project offers classes to children based on skill level and gives them the opportunity to appear in live performances. This month, students will perform in an original musical, The Intimidation Game, at The Miracle Project’s new home — the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts. The musical, centered around bullying, was developed by The Miracle Project’s students and staff, and will run May 22–24.
“The musical tackles bullying from different perspectives,” Hall says. “It’s not about standing up to the bully or fighting the bully. It’s about finding the truth in who you are so nothing [that anyone] can do or say will bother you.”
A Miracle Project student unwittingly sparked the idea for the musical, says Hall, after discussing an encounter with a bully. When staffers asked other students if they’d been bullied, each one admitted they had. Consequently, The Intimidation Game features songs about confidence, about shrugging off insults, and about feeling invisible for being different. The stories of each of the eighteen cast members are shared in an intimate, personal way, prompting Hall to liken the musical to the format of A Chorus Line.
Although the musical’s stars have had their share of run-ins with bullies, through The Miracle Project, many have found allies in each other. Among the program’s success stories is Coby Bird, 13. His mother, Rachael, says that her son hardly spoke as a small child. But after attending an autism family festival several years ago, he was asked to perform and seized the chance to sing. For two years now, Coby has participated in The Miracle Project and the experience has been transformative, according to his mother.
“The Miracle Project has really brought him to life,” she says. “He’s really kind of come out of his shell and is just free to be who he really is. There’s no judgment. He’s 6’3” with red hair. He’s the one who kind of sticks out. In middle school, he never had friends, but now he has friends who act with him and sing with him onstage.”
Bird says Coby and his friends appreciate the opportunity to act in a professional theater space like the Wallis, where The Miracle Project relocated from another venue in January.
Mark Slavkin, the Wallis’ Director of Education, says that when the students rehearse, it’s difficult to distinguish them from professional actors. In fact, some Miracle Project alumni have launched professional acting careers, appearing in television shows such as NBC’s recently canceled Parenthood.
The success of The Miracle Project comes from highlighting the gifts of these individuals with special needs, rather than their disadvantages, which can be “belittling and demoralizing.”
“Most of the kids are incredibly bright,” says Slavkin. “They totally know what’s going on, and it’s fun to have them march out [for rehearsal]. They look no different from the other actors, but it’s more meaningful when you know the challenges they’ve overcome.”
Inspired by the personal stories of the participants, the show is about the challenges facing the new student as he tries to find his way in a high school full of cliques and quick judgments about who fits in and who doesn’t. The musical aims to help others understand autism and neurological differences and to teach tolerance, compassion, inclusion, and anti-bullying.