The 4th Wall Theater Company encourages performers with special needs
Katie Mann and Annie Klark were working in a theater camp when they imagined something new. Why not open the stage for people with special needs? Mann, with a masters degree in special education, and Klark, with a masters degree in vocal performance, combined their shared experiences and in 2012 launched 4th Wall Theater Company. Their motto, “theater is for all abilities!”
“We didn’t begin 4th Wall to be therapy, but in a way it has turned into a quasi-therapeutic experience,” Mann said. “By being mobile, we enter into an environment the student is already comfortable with. From there they are more open to learning and experiencing new things.” To date, the 4th Wall has taught in over 150 locations throughout Michigan, with nearly 9000 students participating.
Setting the stage for success
With a staff of 30, pairs of instructors are sent into the field where they teach students singing, acting and dancing in schools, libraries, and faith-based locations around the state. Francesca Bucci, 10, now a veteran performer, has Down syndrome, lives with her family in Lake Orion and has been acting with 4th Wall since she was just seven. Her mother, Maureen Bucci, has noticed Francesca’s growing confidence ever since.
“Francesca has always been pretty social and loves music and dancing. 4th Wall incorporates both of these into every class, as well as the acting piece. It has also been helpful with her speech and socialization skills. The students work on enunciating their words, looking people in the eye when talking and even practice improvisation during the games they play in class. The students learn to work with each other and their instructors,” Bucci said.
A unique, student-led approach to theater
Mann says that their, “goal at 4th Wall Theater Company is to make sure every actor is supported. Besides being mobile, what’s unique about our program is that it is student-led. In our weekly classes, our students write the final performance they star in for family and friends. The students can be anything they would like to be, from Elsa to Spiderman to a giraffe.”
“For the family and friends who see the final show, there usually isn’t a dry eye in the house,” Mann said. “To see their child with special needs who, for many families, are doing something they never dreamed would be achievable, it is a moving moment.”
A chance to shine
For Francesca Bucci and her family, 4th Wall has provided a place where parents and students can quickly make friends. “Francesca has made so many friends at 4th Wall. We are a big family. We all support and encourage each other’s kids,” Bucci said. “I enjoy 4th Wall because I am getting to know parents of students with Down syndrome at many different ages and stages in their lives. The moms have been a great resource and support. I have also really loved getting to know the students. I know what I can look forward to as Francesca grows older,” Bucci added.
Mann has also witnessed participants and their families become positive role models for others in their communities. “The beauty of theater is its flexibility. We need everyone to tell a story. So no matter one’s physical, mental, or emotional ability, they are a star in our cast!”
For more information, visit 4thwallkids.com/programs or email firstname.lastname@example.org