I get emails all the time from concerned parents, “Your website says, ‘Theatre for all’ but my son… you see…” and the sentence usually fades away. In the world of special education there is an unintentional hierarchy: Fantastic summer camp opportunities with horseback riding will have an asterisk “for children who are high functioning.” Clubs will welcome all, except those with anger issues. Let me tell you, dear reader, if you are teaching theatre outside of an in-school setting, you will have to decide what “all” means to you. My answer, came in the form of Laurie Muffler.
The Mufflers and the Mann family have attended the same church for decades. They have three sons, Michael, Matthew, and Mark, and I met them when their eldest was about 9 (he’s now a junior in college, oh my!). Matthew and Mark both happen to be on the autism spectrum; Matthew is a jovial talkative sort who loves attention and Mark is a deeper thinker, prone to let his anger get the best of him. In Laurie’s experience, Matthew was welcomed with open arms to activities like the local Boy Scout chapter and Mark was, well, more of an advocacy project to help him integrate.
In 2012, armed with my brand new teaching certificate and not enough experience to know what I was in for, I proudly told Laurie Muffler about Annie and I’s potential company, 4th Wall Theatre. “It’s a theatre for ALL abilities. We’re going to travel to different sites around Michigan and teach theatre!” Laurie, of course, was 100% supportive, “That’s great! Can Mark join?” I stopped in my tracks. Matthew could, of course, but Mark was… more challenging. I changed tactics, “Well, we obviously couldn’t have challenging students… I mean, I wouldn’t know how to help a student that needed a feeding tube, for example.” Then Laurie did something that Mama Bears do best, she leaned in close and scared the living daylights out of me: “ALL students means, ALL students. If you are going to help people with developmental disabilities, you need to do the whole pie. Not just the easiest, not just the people who are ready to be helped. ALL of them. You understand?”
I did. And it caused me to stop and ponder. How were we going to accomplish this goal? I only had a teaching certificate, a general education one at that. (I have since acquired my masters in special education). Annie and I decided that if theatre truly is “for everyone” then the doors must be opened. We took it one day at a time, one class at a time, one support at a time. We hired parapros when we needed to, had conferences with parents when we needed to, and before we knew it we supported everyone. “ALL the students.”
So we invite everyone in. It is not always easy. There are students that push the buttons of instructors, (and instructors who push the buttons of some students, haha!), students who do not have a good support system at home to continue the disciplinary structure suggested… (as an extracurricular activity we are often helpless to make any lasting progress with only seeing them an hour a week). But, let me tell you, those students are often the students who need us and the program the most. Everyone needs a champion and if someone is struggling in your class, you can bet they probably struggle at home and in school. Love that student.
I have since thanked Laurie profusely for that moment in 2012, as it was a make or break decision for our company. And, without our even trying, it became something that set 4th Wall apart from other local extra curricular activities. Whenever a parent calls to ask if we take everyone, I proudly say we do… and silently thank Laurie Muffler. (And Mark, who has since starred in numerous 4th Wall productions).