When theater teacher Lynn Manuell’s students, who are autistic and mostly nonverbal, stand up to perform in the winter show at P 811, a District 75 school in Harlem, she isn’t focused on how well they recite lines or perform dances. Instead, Manuell has a specific goal in mind. Shimmying exuberantly to the music, her bright red hair flying, she smiles with delight as they grab their decorative props, tack them to the wall and file onstage — just like they practiced.
“To have students with autism be able to follow those directions step by step, to put up the decorations and walk onstage under bright lights with loud sounds — to do something we expect of any other kid — is just amazing,” Manuell says.
Manuell’s theater program was narrowly saved from elimination last year when the growth of a Success Academy charter school, with which P 811 is co-located, threatened to jettison her classroom space. Manuell, a professional actor who spent nine years as a classroom teacher of students with autism before becoming a full-time theater teacher in 2011, fought to preserve what she saw as a class that provides crucial support for students with special needs.
“Performing is about how to hold yourself, how to project and speak clearly. It’s about self-confidence,” says Manuell. “The idea of having to follow direction and interact with other students appropriately provides a very big support for IEP goals.”
Manuell uses her connections in theater to make sure her students see as many live shows as possible, where she teaches her students what’s expected of them as members of an audience.
“Audience behavior is a skill,” Manuell says. “They learn when to applaud, how to respond to what they see onstage and how to interact in social situations with other children.”
These trips to live productions help shape her curriculum. This fall, after seeing the Broadway musical “Matilda,” Manuell’s 3rd- and 4th-graders participated in the show’s Write Here Write Now program, in which students were asked to write new scenes for the musical’s actors to perform on the Broadway stage. While students in other schools worked independently, Manuell modified the assignment so that she could work with her students in a group.
“For the students who have challenges with writing, connecting writing to acting inspired them to write more,” Manuell says. “It was a way for them to see that things they enjoy, like theater, come from writing.”
The students drew from a writing exercise called a “hopscotch” that allowed them to plot out their script step by step. Then, translating their narrative ideas into dialogue was a new challenge.
“I had to take their ideas and say, ‘What character would say that? How would they say it?’” she remembers.
In class, Manuell treats her students like professional actors, asking them to define theater terms like “stage right” and exhorting them to sing from their diaphragms. Her leopard-print shoes are constantly in motion as she inserts herself into each scene to model choreography alongside her students.
“For some students, remembering choreography is really challenging,” Manuell says. So she spends a lot of time helping students visualize the songs they listen to.
“I try to use their ideas of what scenes would look like, so they can remember the choreography,” she says. “If you’re saying, ‘Let the wind blow,’ what does that look like as a movement? It’s not about the final product, but about what the kids get from the process of doing it.”
Manuell uses theater games to help students focus on speaking to each other and making eye contact. For students who deal with social and emotional challenges, she works to help them separate their own feelings from those of the characters they play — which can liberate students who are not getting along with each other and cultivate positive interactions.
“Theater allows them to be who they are and allows them to express themselves in a way that they are not always able to,” says Theresa Prohaska, a 3rd- and 4th-grade teacher at P 811.
Mindy Rosier, who has taught science at P 811 for eight years, says it’s clear that the students find theater meaningful.
“It’s a way of being creative and having fun. It’s an outlet for them,” she says.
As class comes to an end, Manuell gathers her students together for a few reminders. Then, with a smile, she spreads her arms wide and offers a final piece of advice.
“Performing is something that should bring you joy,” she says.