Building Bridges With a 'Fence'
By Diane McManus, JE Feature
August 27, 2014
The meeting room at Germantown Friends School is empty. Soon it will be filled, but not for the kind of worship service typically held in such a room.
Rather, it will be the scene of a school performance — one that has drawn upon the collective work of music therapist and playwright Andrea Green; students from two schools, GFS and HMS School for Children with Cerebral Palsy; as well as teachers, staff, parents and volunteers.
All are engaged in creating a safe space for artistic expression for students of varying abilities and backgrounds. Some of the cast members have cerebral palsy, some have other struggles not as apparent to a casual observer.
While this cooperative effort involves just two schools and two groups of students, its reverberations may be much further reaching.
Aptly named The Other Side of the Fence, the play is a fable centering around two adjoining farms and each farmer’s fear of those on the other side. Yet as the play unfolds, so do friendships, first between two pigs, Ham and Bacon, and then between animal residents on both sides of the fence.
As with other fables, this one models a lesson for its human audience: The barnyard fence is a metaphor for the fences we construct to protect ourselves from those we fear or mistrust. Who better to present this lesson than children who seem to represent two sides of a fence, but who in reality have more in common than they realized?
The cooperation between Germantown Friends and HMS in the project is portrayed in Henry Nevison’s film, On the Other Side of the Fence, which recently premiered at a special Philadelphia Film Society screening in Center City. The film is now about to be shown on TV, with broadcasts set for cable’s MiND Channel 35 — along with Nevison, the station is the film’s producer — beginning Wednesday, Sept. 3, at 8 p.m. (Click here for additional screenings.)
This project and story go back to 1982, when Teresa Maebori, a teacher at Germantown Friends, was disturbed by a student’s reference to someone as a “retard.” She wanted her students to move past this kind of labeling and respect one another.
To that end, she took a group of them to HMS, hoping they would interact with the challenged children there. It was then that she met Green.
A Jewish music therapist-composer-playwright, Green came up with the idea of bringing students from GFS and HMS together to participate in a musical. Maebori and Green then collaborated on the project.
Students were each assigned partners from the other school. The partners worked together during the once-a-week rehearsals to build not only a musical but bonds of friendship. Initially nervous (a word used by every child interviewed in the film), the GFS students soon overcame their fears as they got to know their partners.
Often that fear centered on not knowing what to say, as exemplified by GFS student Maya Plimack. Yet she discovered that when she and the other student met, “I knew what to say.” Although many with cerebral palsy have difficulty communicating except via assistive devices such as computer screens or through blinks, nods and other non-verbal means, these devices often proved to be enough when the students worked together.
The students from HMS overcame shyness as they began interacting with their partners and came to trust them.
Amy Warmflash, whose daughter, Jordana, attended HMS and participated in the musical, recalls that at first Jordana feared crowds and performances, even to the point of crying on stage. Yet she later said she “loved” her involvement.
Warmflash reflects that for her daughter, the musical was “an opportunity for her to do something mainstream,” while for GFS students, it served to “demystify” disabilities as kids “learned to help automatically,” wiping drool or supporting partners’ heads if needed.
Kerri Hanlon, also the mother of an HMS student, Sean, confirms the value of the musical for her son. For example, she notes, he sat taller and smiled while his partner performed. And he began to try singing the songs from the musical, learning them well enough that if his mother sang along and changed the words, he would stop singing.
Most importantly, Hanlon cites the value for Sean of the “one-on-one friendships” with GFS students. “Kids from both schools,” she says, “have their vulnerabilities. Working with each other helps them to allow themselves to be vulnerable.”
This is borne out in the film, when GFS student Max Marlowe asserts that “you have a difference but there’s always something good about you that other people don’t have.”
Sometimes, as was the case with award-winning theatrical composer Michael Friedman, 38, participation in the musical — he was a cast member as a third-grader at GFS — can “ignite a spark.” While music was always part of his life — and he had acted in school plays before his first exposure to Other Side of the Fence — this was his most extensive role as a kid, he notes in the movie.
He reflects that in this play “everyone was doing something new,” and that the show was “about moving beyond our comfort zone.” He valued the sense of “shared purpose” that allowed participants to “get to know each other."
A successful film-maker, Nevison met Green a couple of years ago, learned of her project and “wanted to do something with a greater purpose.” And Green’s enterprise, then approaching its 30th anniversary in 2012, was a story, he says, “that needed to be told.”
It might not have been told but for Nevison’s determination.
“At the time, I didn’t even own a camera,” he recalls. Yet he recognized that the project was “heading to a profound destination.”
Fortunately, he had established a connection with MiND TV and was able to borrow some equipment. In addition, a friend volunteered to help.
As the filming project moved forward, he was able to obtain more donations of time, equipment and, through the online funding platform Kickstarter, money to see it through.
Nevison says he believed that the musical wasn’t just about a single performance but the “transformation” that took place in the cast during the rehearsals, teaching kids to “accept people who were different.”
For their efforts, both the GFS teacher and the HMS music therapist were honored by the City of Philadelphia last year.
Being on hand for the movie premiere this summer, says Nevison, “I felt the ebb and flow of emotions. The response was tremendous.”