Actors in the Magical Experiences Arts Company reach even the most difficult audiences with soothing touches, fervent gazes and sincere concern.
For the past three years, the troupe, led by Joanne Margolius, has performed monthly for residents of Copper Ridge in Sykesville, a facility dedicated to those with Alzheimer's disease or other forms of memory impairment.
Margolius tailors the production to those with advanced dementia, many of whom she knows by name. Several in her audience can no longer speak or respond to their surroundings.
Muted lighting, colorful costumes and sweet music, accented with the sound of softly falling rain and chirping birds, set the tone for "Boz's Shadow World," a play Margolius wrote, directed and debuted at the end of March at the Maryland School for the Blind.
In her opening remarks, she promised to transport the audience to Victorian England.
As the curtain -- a traveling backdrop Margolius stitched together from several colorful silk saris -- rose, several in the small audience twitched in their wheelchairs, seemingly unaware of the drama. A few moaned audibly and some slept. But Margolius and her castmate, Angela Johnson, were undeterred.
"We never ask for their history or their diagnosis," Margolius said. "We want to reach them in our own spiritual way and build on that. We see them as our friends."
Several Copper Ridge residents appeared to recognize Margolius. One elderly woman started laughing as the actors entered the room.
"I think they remember the little things that connect them to this experience," she said. "The story lines reflect the emotional struggles because of disabilities."
The two actors gently sprinkled the residents with "magic dust" -- glittery stars -- from a porcelain pot. Dressed in a deep red gown with gold accents, Margolius played the lead, a young girl named Zaza, who was born with wings. Her graceful dance movements emulated a bird in flight.
For younger audiences, her makeup would be boldly dramatic with colorful designs on her forehead and cheeks. At Copper Ridge, she tones it down.
"We use low lighting to calm this population and faded makeup so as not to scare them," she said.
She and Johnson danced lithely around the room, pausing before each resident. The actors did not look down at the residents from any stage, but rather stooped or knelt to be at eye level. While maintaining eye contact, the actors gently massaged the face, arms and hands of each resident.
"I try to communicate through the eyes and maintain eye contact," Johnson said. "If I can't do that, I just try to comfort them in whatever way I can."
Most residents responded and relaxed with the gentleness of the touch. When Zaza is wounded and crying for help, one resident reached out her hand to help. Another asked, "What is the matter?"
"Often they open their eyes or move their fingers," Margolius said. "We look for the tiny miracles."
Steve Vozzella, director of activities and volunteer services for Copper Ridge and Fairhaven Retirement Community, said he is no longer surprised when a resident in the advanced stages of dementia "responds appropriately to what is happening in the play."
"There is always more strength in nonverbal communication than in verbal," he said.
Margolius works mostly with disabled children, some so emotionally scarred that it takes months to "pull a reaction from them."
"Where verbal communication is basically non-existent, touch in a safe, appropriate way is the only way to reach through," she said. "We literally lay our hands on [someone] until the child or the older person is no longer threatened and opens up to us."
Vozzella tries to fill the audience with residents who might respond to sensory stimulation. The facility, which has 60 assisted-living rooms, plus 66 beds for skilled nursing care, is designed for research and education in improving the care of those with dementia.
"The residents really do benefit from touch as well as visual and auditory stimulation and to the sense of movement," Vozzella said. "Someone with dementia, especially in the latter stages, can't always stimulate their own senses and this program engages them and enables them."
Magical Experiences Arts Company, founded two decades ago in England, has sent troupes around the world to work with the disabled, particularly children.
Actors, trained in the method, came to Maryland 12 years ago and today the troupe is in residence at the Maryland School for the Blind, where Margolius performs weekly. Much of the financial support comes from the Maryland Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts.
"We zone into what each one in the audience needs and make sure we address their emotional state," she said.
"Drama is the same as music or art therapy. It is about making people happy. Disability makes people feel different. We let them address that feeling."