“Only Make Believe” theater group brings real fun and laughter to kids in hospitals and health care centers

*As published in New York Daily News, January 2013*

A stage was set last week in a small room in a Morris Heights health facility. Three actors hung a velvet curtain that read “Only Make Believe,” and opened a trunk to expose tulle tutus, plastic hats and colorful wigs.

One of the actors, Saluda Camp, said, “We’re all ready, bring out the kids.”

It was show time.

The non-profit organization Only Make Believe brings original interactive theater to over 50,000 kids in some 50 hospitals and care facilities in New York City.

Fueled by singing, dancing and some improv, Only Make Believe is a weekly play-date, and a break.

“The kids are being bombarded all the time with advice from doctors, parents… our program gives them the opportunity to be a kid again,” said Maricha Miles, Only Make Believe executive director. “It empowers them. It might give them more confidence.”

Founder Dena Hammerstein has been an active volunteer for New York City hospitals for over a decade and is a producer for Broadway and off-Broadway shows. She started Only Make Believe in 1999 in honor of her late husband, James Hammerstein, son of the legendary Broadway composer and producer Oscar Hammerstein.

The group’s 20 actors perform at a given hospital/facility once a week for six weeks. In 2012, they performed 390 shows, Miles said.

“It’s fun, very exciting, and also a lot of responsibility,” said actress Channie Waites.

“We are responsible for shaping their experience. It’s a privilege to be able to be in and share space with them.”

Hammerstein said auditions are held for actors.

“And we pay them well because we expect a lot of them and we want them to be at the highest level of compassion,” Hammerstein said.

The Morris Heights Outpatient Psychiatric Care for Children and Families first introduced their kids to Only Make Believe in 2011. Last week, about a dozen kids and some parents were watching Camp, Waites and Craig Anthony Bannister perform an hour-long original play titled “Rick Spacey.”

“The actors have a wonderful rapport with the children, there’s no doubt about that. They make the children feel individually special and essential to the show,” Hammerstein said. “And to see the kid’s faces light up and hear their laughter and see the community that they build with each other is also fantastic.”

Creative arts therapist Elizabeth Bretz at the Morris Heights Health Center works with an 11-year-old girl who is a selective mute. But during an Only Make Believe show, the girl read aloud from a script without any prompting.

“I turned to her mom, and we both smiled at each other because we both recognized this was something that she struggled with,” Bretz said. “I think it was really exciting for her mom who has been so committed to bringing her here.”

Hammerstein said that after the shows are over, kids have been known to sing songs that they learned before an operation to make them brave.

Hammerstein said, “I think we do actually have a genuinely lasting impression and I think that’s the power of theater.”

For more information about Only Make Believe, go to onlymakebelieve.org.

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