Real Live Theater

Developing Abilities in Theater Artists with Developmental Disabilities

In Behind the Scenes on February 23, 2009 at 11:47 pm

by Phil Gravitt

Lots of Bubbles photo by mrPliskin

Lots of Bubbles photo by mrPliskin

SONOMA COUNTY, CA – For four years, local actor Liz Jahren has been the drama instructor for adults at Theatre for Life, a program of Alchemia (al-ke-MEE-a), an arts and vocational day program for Sonoma county residents with developmental disabilities.

Her path to this position started long ago as the daughter of a minister.  “I grew up helping others,” Jahren says, “being of service, feeling the importance of community.  I read the gospel in church with my dad, and even gave children’s sermons.  Being so involved opened my mind to other places I could do that kind of work, to combine social need with theater.”

Jahren was also influenced by Polish Laboratory Theater.  “Being behind the iron curtain in Poland, actors couldn’t say some things,” Jahren explains, “so they found other ways to say what they wanted, like through puppets or humor.”

The North Bay Regional Center has transition programs for the developmentally disabled, to prepare them to live as independently as they are able, and to teach vocational and practical skills, and personal safety.  Social workers at NBRC refer artistically inclined clients to Alchemia.  Reinforcing NBRC programs, Theater for Life puts on “Lil’ Red,” a play about independence, safety, and predator awareness.

Jahren works with adults from age 22 to 65, although most are mid-twenties to mid-thirties.  A few have parents who are or were performers, dancers or actors.  One student learned swing dancing from age five.

Most, however, are acting for the first time. “Special needs students often don’t have access to theater in high school,” Jahren emphasizes.  “If they did, they were fringe players. In Alchemia productions, they are the leads, their own stars.”

Jahren keeps props to a minimum, so the effort can stay focused on the actors.

To develop a play or musical, Liz works with the original play to create a new version with her cast in mind.    “I rewrite it, and then we discuss it and run through an improv version of the play.  Then I transcribe it.”

“We build in safety nets, to feed lines, in case someone forgets.”  Liz quickly adds, “Part of the fun is letting each actor express their creativity, and missed lines are often funny and add to the enjoyment of the play.”

For each play to be performed, while Jahren works with the script, her partner develops songs, and works with the actors musically.  A choreographer has recently been added to create dances.

One type of performance is acting out poetry, as Theater for Life has done at the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco.  The ten-minute presentation portrayed a man having a poetic awakening to the world around him, while the actors danced and floated like angels.  A shadow screen, puppets and bubbles were also utilized by the actors, and music students built their own instruments for the piece.

Another performance is their annual rock musical, based on Pinnochio this year.

Jahren finds the actors inspiring.  She helps them find that, “yes, although there are limitations, we can still be what we want and find where that is.  It’s about joy and love of performing.  Our plays and musicals showcase the disabled actors so people can see them in a different way.”

More information about Alchemia is available at

Phil Gravitt is a freelance writer whose articles have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner, the Noe Valley Voice & other San Francisco neighborhood newspapers, and the Bay Area Visual Arts Blog

Additional articles by Phil Gravitt include:


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