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A Metaphorical Musical
Changing kids lives on the other side of the fence
By Jayne Jacova Feld

Cherry Hill’s Andrea Green wrote her first musical play to bring together children from very different worlds.

“On The Other Side of the Fence” was the music therapist’s very visceral response to a dilemma she and other teachers at HMS School for Children for Cerebral Palsy faced. They wanted to find meaningful ways to engage their physically disabled students with children from Germantown Friends School of Philadelphia (GFS). The year was 1983, a time before the education world moved toward integrating children with special needs with their more typically developing peers.

Green, 58, remembers attending a staff discussion in which the HMS teachers were considering abandoning the budding partnership. While everyone’s intentions were great, the HMS children – many wheelchair-bound and non-verbal – were not able to fully participate, the teachers explained. It was an unequal situation.

Then a musical metaphor hit Green like a lightning bolt.

“I thought ‘On The Other Side of the Fence,’” she recalls. “I had a strong image of a fence being taken down, and I knew I would write a musical that would partner the kids.

“When I feel inspired,” she adds, “things just pour out of me. I didn’t even know where it was coming from.”

Two weeks later, “Fence” was complete. The musical tells the tale of neighboring farmers forced to confront their long-standing feud when their animals develop a forbidden friendship. It’s a story about teaching tolerance and breaking down barriers that actually does so in the process. With limited narration, the tale unfolds mostly through song, featuring full-chorus numbers, dancing and instrumental pieces. Nearly every genre of music is represented, from show-stopping Broadway-like tunes to pop, country, rock, blues, folk and even classical.

Students from the two schools have continuously performed “Fence” and other Green-original musicals each year. In the process, lives have been changed, genuine friendships formed and, in some cases, careers have been forged. Productions have changed through the years as improved assistive-technology devices have allowed non-verbal children more ways to express themselves. In recent years, as Green started publishing her plays, theater groups and schools across the nation have discovered the musicals and started performing them.

So, to mark the musical’s 30th anniversary, she and some avid supporters are making a documentary about “Fence” and the power of music to create understanding and combat intolerance. While all footage was shot earlier in the year, the production team awaits funding to complete the movie. They’re confident, however, that donors will come through to cover the $90,000 price tag, of which $20,000 has already been raised.

As award-winning producer and director Henry Nevison explains, this was a unique and time-sensitive project. Although funding is typically secured before shooting, he says he was willing to take a risk on “Fence.” Had he waited for funds, he explains, the opportunity to capture the making of the 30th-year production would have been lost.

“Sometimes in life you have to jump on the train as it’s leaving the station or watch it leave,” says Nevison, who is project director of the documentary in association with MiND TV. “I realized it was a great opportunity as a documentary filmmaker to be part of something that could really have an impact and could be so much bigger than me.”

What drew him to the story, he explains, was the opportunity to film the transformative moments as they happened, as kids from very different worlds formed close bonds creating the musical together. The project also took his crew on the road to Massachusetts to film a class there performing the musical.

“You can talk at kids, or you can inspire them with an experience,” says Nevison, noting that the documentary will come with a teachers’ guide for educators, in hopes they will be inspired by the film to put on their own show. “By putting on a play themselves or even watching the little moments in the documentary, they can have the experience of understanding that people can be different and that difference can be celebrated and not feared. As humans, we can choose to fear or we can chose to embrace and open our minds. In the end, if people learn to embrace difference, there’s peace, cultural exchanges and enrichment.”

Dan Gottlieb, a Cherry Hill-based psychologist who speaks and writes regularly about the roots of prejudice, violence and depression, has signed onto the project as a consultant. As he sees it, “Fence” is about something “bigger than cerebral palsy or even special needs.”

“It’s about kids on either side of the fence,” says Gottlieb, who became disabled as an adult when a car accident left him paralyzed from the chest down. “We’re talking about black and white, poor and rich, disabled or not disabled. We’re talking about prejudice, discrimination and alienation, which is a by-product of discrimination.

“While no one has really discriminated against me, the most painful thing I ever experienced was the alienation of experiencing myself as different,’” he adds. “And that’s what Andrea combats with her plays and her music. I’ve been in this field for 40 years, and the way she does it is more effective, elegant, powerful and fun than anything I’ve seen.”

Perhaps surprisingly, the genesis of the project was an incidence of prejudice. It all started some 30 years ago when GFS teacher Teresa Maebori wanted her third- and fourth-grade students to make genuine connections with children different from themselves. She got the idea after an assembly in which some students labeled people with physical disabilities “retarded.”

“I’m Japanese American, so I knew what it was like to be a minority,” she says. ”It was at a time when my father, who had had a stroke, was in a wheelchair, and I realized what handicapped people experienced.”

After a lecture about cerebral palsy from a student’s father, who was a doctor, the first group of students took a van from their Quaker school to HMS, which is in University City in Philadelphia. While the first visit, with planned art projects, was successful, a second excursion, in which the teachers planned wheelchair activities, was not as effective.

The partnership would likely have ended there if not for Green’s idea for the musical.

“Andrea played me the first couple of songs over the phone, and they were amazing,” Maebori recalls. “Still, I could see where my kids could do this, but I didn’t understand how the HMS kids could participate.”

But Green, who at 28 had already spent years connecting with mentally ill and handicapped people through music, pictured the possibilities.

At the earliest rehearsals, it was as if something magical was happening, Maebori says. For some children who had some limited speech, the musical was a chance to sing. Still others found different ways to express themselves, perhaps by moving to the music or with facial expressions.

“In that first year, we were amazed at the transformation at both schools,” says Maebori, who retired last year following the 30th production. “In terms of my kids, it was the opportunity to show what is really human about each other, despite differences. This was a life skill. It was something that will impact them for the rest of their lives.”

Among the transformed, GFS alumna Thea Suchodolski became an educator of the blind and visually impaired. She says her career path was determined in large part by one extraordinary musical experience in elementary school.

“Today, when asked, I tell people that my desire to advocate for people with disabilities started in third grade,” says Suchodolski, 31. “It probably ends up being a much longer story than they’d like to hear, but the truth is, for me, it all did begin with this project.”

Suchodolski recalls bonding immediately with her HMS partner Nicole, who while nonverbal, was very expressive.

“When I remember Nicole today, I think of us laughing and pulling pranks, like any childhood friends do,” she explains, adding that the girls remained friends, writing and visiting each other until Nicole died unexpectedly several years later.

“I had never lost a friend before, and I remember feeling angry when people did not understand my grief. To them, she was so different her death did not seem surprising,” she says. “To me, though, it was like losing any one of my GFS classmates, because she was my equal.”
For Suchodolski, the magic was in the time the students spent together working toward a common goal and building real relationships.

For Green, who first gravitated to music as a shy, sensitive kid, the songs are the emotional core. Yet it’s in the way the musicals are constructed, and the fact that everyone has a part, that sparks real understanding between people who previously may have not seen their commonality.

“The whole point is feeling that we’re all in this together, and that we all have a role to play,” says Green. “We just have different ways of expressing ourselves.”

 

September 2013
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