I want to make a living. I will readily admit that performing for children is something I do, because I know people will pay me to do it. However, I am at a phase in my life where I will gladly drop a lot of other paying work, because I see the value of what I do beyond the monetary. In the last two weeks, through a relationship with Chestnut Ridge Counseling Services in Fayette County, I have performed at nearly every school in the Uniontown School District. I am humbled by the reactions to my adaptation of my assembly, ‘Folktrails’.
The director of Chestnut Ridge in the Uniontown area, Michael Quinn, asked me if I could adapt some of my stories to address a very real problem crippling the children in his area. Like many areas across Pennsylvania, Uniontown has been devastated by the plague of chemical dependency, and poverty. The children tend to suffer the most in these situations. If a caregiver is an addict, the children are often abused, underfed, and generally ignored. It’s a snowball rolling down a mountain, gaining size and speed in their lives, and the instances self-harm and general dysfunction have a devastating effect on them. The first casualty of the epidemic is communication. Children show the signs of what is happening at home, but will not talk about it. For all the same reasons that most people shut down when a family member is an addict. Shame, guilt, fear of reprisal, and a need to try and make things look as if the problem doesn’t exist are just a few of the symptoms that these innocent kids have to work through.
We all know adults who have had to break through this very sad cycle, because of a child who is an addict. But we very rarely think about the adult problems these children of addicts have to navigate.
I have been performing the stories in ‘Folktrails’ for years. At first, the show was about the commonality of man. The three stories I tell are from very different cultures, but address virtues that are universal to all people. Ten years ago, while researching the problem of bullying, I realized that these same stories were perfectly suited to address that growing problem. The stories define what a bully is, teach an alternative of generosity, and finally, challenge the children to take a stand against those who bully.
The information Mike wanted me to communicate through this assembly was a little different. He wanted a program that would give kids an excuse to talk to someone, a program that would help them find the courage not to hide. I was uncertain about how this adaptation would work. As an actor, you can do things a certain way, for so long, that you’re not certain you can communicate the same material in a different manner.
To my delight the assemblies have been very successful! As in all of my assembly programs, the children laugh a lot, but I’ve changed the thrust of each story to address the issues that would give counselors a window of opportunity to break through the walls of fear and silence. Although, there is a kind of sad twist to that success. At every school, at least one child told me something that was heartbreaking. A six year old boy told me his mother and father hit each other every day. Another little girl, probably around eleven years old, came up to me after a performance at a Middle School, and wanted to talk to me about being an artist. The kids learn that I’m also an illustrator during my introduction, and she wanted to show me some of her drawings. As I looked through her drawing pad, she told me she had tried to kill herself several times. I asked her if she was talking to someone about it. She confided that she was going to a counselor every week, and that it was helping her.
After, I’ve performed at each school, Chestnut Ridge counselors will go into each classroom and give the children options, and tools to steer them to some kind of assistance. It’s been an exhausting two weeks, but it’s also proved to be some of the most fulfilling theatrical experiences of my life.
A story can be funny, exciting, and ridiculous, but at the very same time, life changing. Even I forget that sometimes.