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‘Special’ kids find direction on the stage

Posted By ISRAEL21c Staff On December 4, 2007 @ 9:03 am In | No Comments

“You will be a pilot. I can feel it,” says a confident father-to-be speaking of his future son, in Life as a Stage, a play based on personal stories written by noted Israeli playwright Shai Pitovsky and recently performed by eight young actors with significant learning and adjustment disabilities in front of an audience of some 300 in Ra’anana.

“Life as a Stage” is about the sadness, the bewilderment, and the struggles of young people who realize early on that they will never become IDF pilots. Based largely on their lives, the play describes, with humor and insight, their attempts to discover how they fit into a world in which they are always a little bit different.

As one mother in the play puts it when her son asks why he is going to a “special” school, when everyone, after all, is special, “You’re a little more special.” That is the story of their lives.

The eight young actors are students in special university course called ‘The Art of Living’ run in conjunction with a Ra’anana-based non-profit organization called Beit Issie Shapiro. The 26-year-old effort provides comprehensive services for children and adults with developmental disabilities and other special needs.

Their ‘Trump International Institute for Continuing Education in Developmental Disabilities’ offers the serious, two year academic program adapted for those who don’t fit into a regular academic track. ‘The Art of Living’ was first instituted at Bar Ilan University five years ago as an introduction to practical psychology and philosophy. Among the subjects taught were assertiveness, cognitive behavior therapy and the philosophy of Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, whose Man’s Search for Meaning describes a method of finding meaning in all forms of existence, even the most difficult ones.

“Such philosophies were intended to help the students realize that they can live worthwhile lives even with disabilities,” said the Trump Institute’s director, Dr Benny Hozmi,

So successful was the program that this year, it was extended to another course – this time on ‘Basics of Theater’ run by actor/director Itzkik Weingarten in conjuction with the School of Stage Arts in Seminar Hakibbutzim State Teachers College.

“We chose theater as the subject of the course,” said Hozmi, “because we wanted the students to realize that though they may be limited in some respects, they are capable of developing in many other fields, such as music and theater.”

That aim is in keeping with the philosophy of the Trump Institute, whose broader goal is the inclusion and integration of those with special needs in the community and the strengthening of their quality of life. Among the projects that the Institute offers, for example, are courses for parents of special needs youngsters, in which such subjects as bonding, legal rights and sexual education are discussed.

Those elements are undoubtedly helpful, but Hozmi thinks they may be a little patronizing to the young people themselves.

“Maybe they could speak for themselves and become their own advocates, without a mediator. If they could manage to achieve success in something, no matter what, that would give them confidence in their own powers,” he said, adding that the theater course is one attempt to give them such confidence.

The young people who took part in the ‘Basics of Theater’ have significant cognitive and adjustment disabilities that make them almost, but not quite normal. They fall between stools; not completely comfortable in ordinary life, but by no means mentally deficient. Taught by director Ilan Shani (together with Pitovsky and Michal Maman), the students learned such stagecraft skills as voice development, stage art, movement, improvisation and history of the theater, culminating in the writing and performance of their autobiographical play Life as a Stage.

The play describes what it is like wanting to fit in like everyone else, but never actually knowing how. The actor who represents all of them starts off normally, but then, at some point in his schooling, it becomes obvious that something is not quite right. He has difficulty learning; as one actor puts it, “he added things that were not allowed and subtracted without even knowing what was allowed.”

And then come the ‘special’ school, and the exclusion from IDF service. The society that he was once part of now rejects him. Soon, the actor is wearing a mask, representing a false fa├žade, or what psychologist DW Winnicott calls ‘the false self’. He pretends to be what he thinks he has to be in order to be accepted by society, because to be ‘me’ isn’t enough.

He describes, for example, how the girls he meets always ask him what he did in the army, which is a norm for most Israelis. The line he uses is ‘I can’t tell you, because if I did, I would have to kill you!’ That gets a laugh, but there is an underlying sense of unease. What happens when she finds out the truth?

In this sense, the play’s title Life as a Stage is literally true: he is constantly acting a part. But in another sense, the play has a happier outcome. Through this theater course and others like it, each participant may have gathered the confidence to move on to another, more secure stage in life. The hope is that such courses will teach each of them that to be ‘me’ is indeed enough.