How Only Make Believe brings theater to kids in hospitals even during COVID

Professional actors bestow the healing power of laughter in interactive videos made from home.

In these days of medically necessary masks and prudent social distancing, let us not forget children in hospitals and care facilities living with chronic illnesses and disabilities unrelated to COVID-19.

For more than 20 years, the nonprofit Only Make Believe (OMB) has been introducing children with chronic medical conditions to the joys of live theater. It wasn’t that long ago that professional actors—including several from the DC area—would perform in-person right before the children as part of both a healing process and a learning tool.

THEN: children’s theater live and in person. (Catalogue for Philathropy photo courtesy Only Make Believe.)

Over the decades here in the DC area, as well as New York and Philadelphia, nearly 85,000 children have been served by OMB. Now and as COVID continues to impact, how has OMB pivoted to adapt to these times of social distancing?

“Only Make Believe introduces children living with chronic illnesses and disabilities to the magical world of theater,” said Tamela Aldridge, OMB Executive Director. Founder Dena Hammerstein “decided to bring the theatre to them, helping to create a unique version of live theater in which each child plays an integral part.”

Tamela Aldridge

OMB is a project of the James and Dena Hammerstein Foundation. Dena Hammerstein established Only Make Believe in memory of her husband, James (son of Oscar Hammerstein), for his dedication to the theater, and her own passionate love for children in need.

“We believe in make believe­­—the healing power of laughter­­—and our primary goal is to make each and every child feel special,” said Aldridge. “Only Make Believe provides unique access to the art and healing therapy of theater. In bringing the shows to the hospitals, we remove the hardships that may be associated with traveling to a theater for a family with a child experiencing an illness or disability. They are in a safe environment, with staff that is equipped to respond to their needs.”

Aldridge told me that OMB “strives to meet every child where they are physically, emotionally, and developmentally creating a safe space for them to forget where they are and why they are there and simply be children having fun.” There are no additional costs to the children or their families for the service Only Make Believe provides.

Aldridge indicated that while OMB is unable to enter facilities to meet children face-to-face, “we created ONLINE Make Believe, a new digital offering.”

NOW: interactive making believe online. (DC actor Megan Graves shown in an ONLINE Make Believe video.)

ONLINE Make Believe is an episodic series of interactive video segments based upon original scripts. Each series has a corresponding activity guide (in English and Spanish versions) filled with games, drawing prompts, and puzzles that can be downloaded from the OMB website. “To maintain the interactive aspect of our original programming,” said Aldridge, “children will have the opportunity to submit their ideas, drawings or video sharings from the activity guide prompts to be incorporated into each corresponding episode.” Access to the videos for OMB partner facilities is through a download from the OMB website or YouTube channels.

“We have also created OMB All Stars Online, a digital program that enables Only Make Believe to facilitate interactive theater workshops with our specialized populations via Zoom,” added Aldridge. “Participants explore gesture, mime, emotions, and movement with one of our OMB Actors to create their own unique devised theater performance that will be shared at the culmination of the workshop series. It is a week-long series where children can come together to play and create from the safety of their homes or hospital rooms.”

I learned from Only Make Believe professional actors that they work from home, filming themselves and their dialogue separately. Then OMB edits into the final product. The next original production is due out on July 28, 2020.

Maya Jackson

Maya Jackson is a DC-area member of the OMB theater family. “Not only do I get the rare gift to engage imagination and act with awesome kids, but I get to be part of a company that takes care of people in such an earnest way. Through OMB, I get the chance to make art, build community, foster healing, and do good. Even during a global pandemic.

“I play Socrates in an upcoming Online Make Believe Video—a kid who just wants to get through their chores and have a good time with family on magical Coconut Island, but a pesky genie and a purple coconut get in the way! It’s a romp and ton of fun and a nice opportunity to do something silly during such a heavy, surreal, and at times painful moment. Plus, I just filmed an episode of Homebound a few weeks ago (that similarly had us doing some of our own camera work), and I learned so much from the wonderful team on that project too. It was good practice for this one.”

Laura C. Harris

DC-area actor Laura C Harris indicated thatworking up close with children, many of whom are living with illness or disability, in the hospital, care facility, or school where they spend so much of their time, we see first-hand how play, the use of imagination, the judgment-free environment, and the opportunity to contribute and participate actively throughout every performance not only offers an escape from the difficulties of their day-to-day, but also builds confidence, interpersonal and critical thinking skills, and coping mechanisms, while reinforcing both individual contributions and teamwork in the creation of these magical worlds.

“I’ll be playing a flight attendant in the Online Make Believe version of our play Hocus Pocus. At the start of the show, the flight attendants welcome the audience onto the flight to Coconut Island, where the story takes place, and have a very fun song and dance about the plane safety rules that the audience is invited to participate in,” noted Harris. “It’s an opportunity for kids to get used to the participatory and goofy nature of the show before the meat of the narrative starts.”

In a final comment, Only Make Believe Executive Director Aldridge said, “The arts are vital in not only overcoming this pandemic, but also in learning how we can come together and heal from the tumultuous beginnings of this country that we are reckoning with today. It is also a poignant reminder of the importance of theater and its impact on the children we serve.”

Only Make Believe is listed with the Catalogue of Philanthropy and makes its financials public and easily available—useful to know for those sorting through the many donation requests they may be receiving during these stressful times.


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