Healing At-Risk Kids Through Theater

Marie Laurin is a rehabilitation specialist at a residential treatment facility for severely emotionally disturbed children in Los Angeles. The facility houses 80 children who are awaiting family reunification, adoption or foster care on a sprawling campus that was built as an orphanage in the 1920s.

When Laurin discovered that the facility’s main meeting hall was originally constructed as a theater – and had not housed a single theatrical production in its 90-year existence – she initiated a drama program and began work staging an adaption of Saint-Exupéry’s children’s classic The Little Prince.

While the kids enthusiastically embraced the idea, the facility’s brass was less than encouraging. “When I suggested staging a play, there was dead silence in the room,” Laurin said. “Because these children tend to be hyperactive and exhibit aggressive behavior, the system places low expectations on them. But these children love challenges; it boosts their self-esteem. I knew they could pull it off. They’re survivors.”

As rehearsals got underway, even Laurin was surprised by the degree of commitment the kids displayed. “I was blown away by the fact that these kids – who hate homework – learned their lines in two days, with no help from the staff.”

Laurin was also surprised at how naturally the kids took to the rehearsal process. “Because of their high-level of creativity and imagination, they had an immediate grasp of their characters. Even the youngest actor in the play, at 8 years old, understood the play and the message right away,” she explained. “Most of my work involved re-directing their behavior rather than directing their performance. These kids tend to exhibit a sense of entitlement because of their history as victims of abuse and neglect; as survivors, they’ve learned to look out for themselves. Since theater is a communal activity, they had to develop social skills and learn how to deal with delayed gratification. It took five weeks of rehearsals before they saw the result of their work. For these kids, five weeks is an eternity.

With all that stacked against her, how did she get the kids to stick it out until opening night? “I used a reward system of praise, and the occasional bag of Hot Cheetos,” she admitted. “Hot Cheetos is like gold on the campus.”

The road to opening night was not without its difficulties. “There were some last-minute adjustments,” Laurin said. “One actress quit the night before the performance because she didn’t want her peers to see her wearing a tutu. I also had to recast another part because the original actor assaulted the school principal.”

Overcoming doubts by many administrators that children who suffer from Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and behavioral issues could successfully mount a theater production, Laurin and the children stunned a packed house of board members and invited donors with a performance that drew a standing ovation and an encore performance the following week. The positive effects on the kids were instantly apparent.

“The staff saw a change in the children’s behavior immediately. The kids had more self-confidence. They were beaming,” said Laurin. “Our lead actor was a little cocky for a few days, but he came back to reality. Most of the kids who were in the play have since been reunified with their families. Kids who weren’t in the play begged me to put them in the next show.”

Laurin and the kids are now in the beginning stages of an ambitious musical production, this time, chosen by the children themselves: The Wizard of Oz. “The kids are very aware of the message,” Laurin said. “They run up to me in the halls, click their heels and say, ‘There’s no place like home.’”