As the curtain closes on an unlikely troupe of actors, the audience stands and cheers. But this stage is quite different from a traditional community theater production—all the actors have aphasia and the "theater" is the community-based Adler Aphasia Center in Maywood, N.J.
For the past four summers, the Adler Aphasia Center's Drama Club has staged an aphasia-friendly musical production. The center is based on the principles of the Life Participation Approach to Aphasia (LPAA Project Group, 2001) and offers a variety of discussion and activity-based groups, including the drama club, for its members. So far, the club has staged productions of "The Wizard of Oz," "The Sound of Music," "West Side Story," and "South Pacific."
At the start of each year, two of the center's speech-language pathologists begin preparations for the club's first meeting in late spring. They adapt a popular Broadway or Hollywood script for actors with aphasia—abbreviating scenes, simplifying language, and using pictures and other visual, written, and gestural elements. The musical score also is condensed and choreography is created to meet the members' varying physical abilities. Props, scenery, and costume needs are also identified.
The process for members of the drama club is a 15-week journey from cast selection to the post-production party. All center members interested in participating are encouraged to join the group; no one is turned away regardless of language or physical limitations or lack of acting or singing experience. Vernon Wilson, a veteran club member with aphasia and dysarthria, noted, "They [fellow actors and center staff] don't criticize. They lift you up. In the outside world they would criticize. These people...in this place...lift you up."
At the first annual club meeting, members view video clips of the selected musical and then volunteer for roles. Their peers vote anonymously to cast each part. All members who want to appear onstage are cast in principal or chorus roles. Those who want to work behind the scenes design and construct props and sets.
Rehearsal sessions are a vibrant mix of hard work and camaraderie. Throughout the 12 weekly, two-hour rehearsals, scripts are revised to meet individual actors' specific communication and physical abilities. Each actor receives an aphasia-friendly script, pictorial stage directions, song lyrics, and music for home practice. Rehearsals start with the actors viewing video clips of their day's scenes; the SLPs highlight relevant script, choreography, and props. Each scene is rehearsed with clinicians providing hands-on coaching. Center volunteers also participate as script coaches, stage crew, and costume and make-up assistants.
"The actors look out for one another," said volunteer Robin Straus, "whether it is practicing lines together backstage, making sure costumes are accessible, or helping one another get on stage. The pride they have in each other is tangible."
Transporting the Audience
The rehearsals culminate in a matinee and evening performance. The show begins with an SLP providing an introduction to aphasia and how it may affect the performance. A narrator with aphasia opens the show and then turns it over to the actors who magically transport the audience into Dorothy's adventures in Oz or the Sharks and Jets' dramatic confrontations in New York City in the 1950s.
"Our grandkids seeing [their grandfather] perform makes them realize you can overcome any obstacle you're given," said Lee Kelly. "It is great to witness the camaraderie. If one person has trouble with a line, someone else with aphasia is helping him right there on stage."
Another spouse, Jennifer Swanson, agreed, "The pride they have in the performance is wonderful."
Christine Byrnes, who has played lead or supporting roles in each of the productions and who sang in a band prior to the car accident that left her with aphasia, said, "Since 2006 to present...you can't imagine...I feel more confident. I feel more proud than ever. It's so fun...we laugh and joke."
Jack Kelly, a club member with a gorgeous tenor voice—and severe aphasia and apraxia of speech—grinned and noted "de-de-de-de-de-de-dee" to the tune of "There is Nothing Like a Dame" from this past summer's performance of "South Pacific."
In addition to psychosocial benefits, the actors acknowledge both communication and recreational/vocational benefits. These include improved communication from practicing communication strategies and improvisation in a supportive and relaxed setting, and engaging in script practice while rehearsing lines.
As with any theatrical production, each actor takes something different from it. For some it is the joy and empowerment, for others it is the opportunity to find their voice and the words to express it, and still for others it is the confidence and fellowship.
The Adler Aphasia Center's musical theater productions are very different from those performed just 17 miles away on Broadway in New York City. However, no one who is a part of this unusual musical theater prefers the conventional stage.
As Jim Taylor, a club member who acted professionally before his stroke, observed, "It was extraly [sic] good. It's not the same—it's better!"