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Life is washable: Lessons from children

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At this point in my life, I have worked in many environments, including being a teaching artist in Kabul without much Dari, working with folks with pretty much any atypical situation you can think of, and had crazy weather do its very best to wreak havoc. Generally, we find a way to manifest a successful outcome, and I am able to be in the smooth problem-solving zone (especially as I gain experience with age).

That being said, my latest project has me laughing as I realize that the boy 'on the spectrum', the girl with Muscular Dystrophy, and all the other kids with their wide-ranging challenges are teaching me to what it really means to be patient, roll with the punches, and remember that life is washable.

Here's the backstory. “Life is Washable” is the tagline for the wonderful, ability-inclusive organization called The Magic Paintbrush (www.magicpaintbrushproject.org) that is sponsoring this latest project. I quote their website:

The Magic Paintbrush Project provides family and community engagement programs that serve individuals of all ages with special needs. Our programs include innovative workshops, activities and materials designed to creatively engage ability and invite involvement with families and caregivers.  The Magic Paintbrush Project creatively connects those we serve, including individual families, agencies, integrative programs and classrooms. We have successfully served thousands of individuals leaving a lasting impression for all.”

The Magic Paintbrush Project is run by the delightful Jen O'Brien, who originated it years ago as a response to a lack of creative opportunities for her own children with special needs. Jen and I had worked together at a few symposiums and helped each other with resources over the past half-dozen years, and when she contacted me last spring, I figured it would be another one of those types of calls.

But no.

She wanted to create a theatre company with kids with special needs. They would meet once a week (not counting holiday weeks), would learnMagic Paintbrush Project about performing and playwriting, write their own piece, and finally perform it in a professional theatre... within about three months. She was hoping I would be willing to be the person to lead the workshops, facilitate the script development, and direct the show. Exciting and a lot to accomplish under any circumstances, never mind that although theatres have wheelchair-accessible seating, they do not often have wheel-chair accessible greenrooms and so on. But, what the heck, life is washable, right? I said, “THAT SOUNDS AWESOME!!!!!!!”

Then we had what I think many of us have experienced: 'floating stakeholder syndrome',  followed by outreach challenges, and everyone's perennial favorite, scheduling obstacles. I had nearly given up of having the project happen at all, when Jen phoned the day before our first day to say we had four kids for sure. Not what I was hoping for, and four kids is the bare minimum needed for a fun and full theatrical endeavor. Add to that a cold day, an outdoor delay, and a broken thermostat in our working space...

Magic Paintbrush Project logo

I brought that stress into the arena. I shouldn't have and I know that, but the best I could do was keep it on the inside, and wonder how I could meet everyone's needs and forward the project so we could somehow meet stakeholder expectations and various deadlines. I began to do what I know how to do, begin the process of becoming a writing/performing ensemble. The kids began to do what they know how to do: listen for the important things, find their own way to connect, and not mind the mess/chaos...because life is messy, life is crazy. Nothing is designed for this particular group of differently-abled kids whose physical needs are so varied, and they are ready to roll with that because we have decided as a team that this is our trajectory. We will create our and perform our show, because I will teach them what I know about theatre, and they will teach me what they know about living vibrantly in a messy world.

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