Joanne Lewis-Margolius and her troupe of volunteer actors are helping disabled adults and kids open up and express their feelings


April 28, 1996|By HAROLD JACKSON

A heavy metal door quietly swings open into a small conference room that has been decorated to look like it's not inside the medical unit of the Baltimore Association for Retarded Citizens building in Towson. But it is.

Eight men and women, patients, are led into the room. They walk slowly, without conviction, as though they're used to going where they're told to go, even when they don't want to.

Once inside, their wide eyes reveal their confusion. It took only moments to get here from their dormitory rooms at BARC, but where is here? The room has only two strangely dressed women in it. No tables, no chairs, no beds, no walls.

Well, the room has walls. But they have been draped with colorful sheets of cloth to give the space a mystical appearance. Elizabethan music is being played on a tape recorder that the patients cannot see.

Monica Smith, 27, and Allison Sampery, 30 -- wearing what looks like medieval garb, but with their faces painted like Mardi Gras celebrants -- gaily greet each one of the patients. The women, who perform as part of the Magical Experiences Arts Company, help each patient sit on the cold linoleum tile floor.

A chair is found for one man, who can get around fairly well with a walker but cannot bend his bones to comfortably reach so low a place. An older woman with thin, gray hair can't stop saying "hello," and shows all who come near the coins in her hand.

Suddenly, Monica shouts, "Ghetto child, let the play begin."

The founder of MEAC, Joanne Lewis-Margolius, suddenly appears from behind the wall of colorful cloths. The music is playing behind her. A slightly built woman of 29, Joanne is dressed as the comic character Harlequin and her face has been painted to make her look like the puppet Punch.

She begins to dance, closer and closer to those sitting on the floor, their backs against the covered wall. They like that. They smile, they grin, they watch, they try to get up. Monica and Allison gently, but forcefully, keep them seated. There will be time later for getting up.

For the next hour and a half, the patients are both audience and participants in a play they don't even realize is being performed. All they know is that for a little while someone will touch their hands, someone will touch their faces, someone will embrace them, and whatever it is about them that is broken will be made to feel whole.

The Baltimore-based Magical Experiences Arts Company was designed to help people with disabilities express their emotions -- even if they cannot speak. When the program works, participants discover not only that they are cared about, but that they have the ability to show how much they care about other people.

Staff members at the various hospitals and schools where MEAC has performed have told Joanne her therapeutic theater troupe is unlike any other group they have encountered.

"The essence of what we do," Joanne says, "is work with people with disabilities that make it extremely difficult for them to communicate their feelings.

"Two weeks ago, we were performing for a group that included a blind girl, about 14, who must have had an extremely frustrating day. Whenever I held her hands she would dig her nails into me. She was scratching out of frustration and anger.

"I allowed her to release that frustration. She did that by becoming very physical. But we found ways, through music, through touch, to get her to concentrate on feelings other than anger. By the time we had finished, she was laughing, maybe not happy, but content."

Joanne was only 19 when she founded the Magical Experiences Arts Company in her native England. The year was 1986. She had been working on a fashion degree at Middlesex Polytechnic when she joined a drama group called Action Space London Events. The group worked with young people with learning disabilities and emphasized expression through movement.

She was inspired by the experience, left college and trained with a mime artist, a ballet dancer and a movement teacher before forming MEAC. She taught herself how best to interact with people with varying disabilities as she performed for them.

"This was very important to me," Joanne says. "I know what it's like to be treated differently. When I was little I had a speech impediment. Other children would be mean because I couldn't pronounce my words well. And they were cruel to me because I was Jewish."

Joanne used her Jewish heritage as inspiration to write four plays that provide the vehicles for interaction with MEAC's audiences. The newest play, which was performed at BARC, is called "Dancing With the Angels." The setting is Poland during World War II.

"The story line is complex, but I don't expect the audience to follow it," Joanne says. "The play is more for us [the performers] to understand the emotions we want to project."

The objective is to get the audience to feel the same emotions as the actors and to respond to those emotions.

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