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At the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey, a group of children are learning the joy of theater.

Tammy La Gorce writes in the NY Times that the playhouse now has a class for children with disabilities.

“The class is a logical next step for Paper Mill, which last year began offering a series of sensory-friendly presentations for children with autism in its ‘Theater for Everyone’ programming. Sensory-friendly shows are scripted to be more literal, with innuendo kept to a minimum, and the theater’s lighting and volume are adjusted to help audience members feel more comfortable.

“This year, in a partnership with VSA New Jersey, a nonprofit organization that provides arts programming for children and adults with disabilities, Paper Mill joined the ranks of theaters welcoming such children who have an interest in learning to perform.

“Parents of children with developmental disabilities ‘are seeing the benefits of arts education,’ said Lisa Cooney, 46, director of education for Paper Mill. ‘And they’re a lot more proactive than they used to be.’

“Those who run the programs find them rewarding as well. The children ‘give so much to us,’ said Mickey McNany, the director of Paper Mill’s Theater School, after the recent class. In it, her 10-year-old granddaughter, Mary McNany, who has Down syndrome, identified Mozart as the composer of ‘Eine kleine Nachtmusik,’ performed an improvised roller-skating scene and used sign language, as well as her voice, to sing a song.” Read more.

Below, Marnie McNany takes part with her children Finn and Mary.
Photograph: Aaron Houston for the New York Times

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I have always loved theater, and even when I have been in a play and felt stage fright, I have been able to make it work as a springboard for the lines I have to say. But when I have to do a presentation as myself and not a character, I freeze up.

Which is why I keep taking classes in how to give presentations, to no avail. But the class that I took last week may finally help me. And I think the secret of it was that the instructor, though an experienced corporate coach and adviser, is also a practicing actor and playwright.

He was very good at paring down the words participants wanted to use and helping choose the most effective ones. And his ideas about how to make an entrance, how to stand, natural gestures to use, tone of voice, and eye contact seemed to have roots in the stage. Even the freshness of his own presentation to the class seemed the result of having to say the same lines night after night in a show and make them seem new.

Of course, no class is magic, so we have to wait and see how it goes when I do my work presentation in late March. But I am definitely going to try harder to apply what I heard than when I took presentation classes in the past full of jargon, phony jokes, and gimmicks that are supposed to work but don’t seem to have a lot underpinning them.

The teacher was Brandt Johnson. See the actor here. See the corporate consultant here. Another one of these people who lead several lives simultaneously.

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