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Paper Mill Playhouse Program Gives Everyone A Chance on Stage

Ang Santos

The ‘Theater for Everyone’ program at the Paper Mill Playhouse allows students with developmental disabilities to explore their creativity.  To channel their inner actor.

“My students have all different abilities and disabilities, said Leslie Fannelli, ‘Theater for Everyone’ program instructor.  “We’re an intergenerational group because the families are always involved.  So we are age six through our sixties.  Everyone always participates.  Nobody sits on the sidelines.”

The students create scenarios secretly in a huddle then act out the scene for the parents to guess what they’re playing.  From ghosts, chickens, to Jedi knights, the young actors covered a range of characters.  They start by mushing the ‘magic clay’.

“What we always do every class is magic clay.  The magic clay is different in every single class,” Fannelli said.  “It is believed that many of them do not have abstract thought.  I have found out that that’s absolutely not true.  Because the magic clay is abstract thought.  We take the clay, we mush it up, we declare our rules.  We’re going to make it, use it, give it a sound, act it, be it, give it a sound, and then they become the characters.”

There’s concerns around Paper Mill Playhouse over President Trump’s proposed budget.  It aims to cut funding to the National Endowment for the Arts whose grant makes ‘Theater for Everyone’ possible. 

“My hope is that the Congress will step up and do what’s right and maintain the support of the NEA.  At the end of it all, this is a congressional decision,” said Lisa Cooney, the Paper Mill Playhouse Director of Education.  “These are programs that are popular, especially with these families.  A program that needs funding in order to survive.  We don’t charge tuition for this class.  We don’t want a family to have to choose between this and a needed therapy.  It’s really costly to raise a child in general.  It’s even more costly to raise a child with special needs.”

New Jersey Congressman Leonard Lance, who sees over the Paper Mill’s district, says he’ll stand by the arts in Washington.

“I hope that colleagues throughout the Congress in both the House of Representatives and the United States Senate recognize the benefit of these programs,” Rep. Lance said.  “There’s such a tremendous economic multiplier effect that it makes good sense.  These programs have been historically important in our society since the middle 1960’s, more than fifty years ago.  I certainly hope and expect that funding will continue.  I will do my part as the Republican chair of the Arts Caucus to make sure that that is the case.”

While the adults contemplate grown up stuff, the future film and Broadway stars are busy having fun.