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Dream Theater, Inc.

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By Nancy Eichhorn

In a clinical world of diagnosable disabilities, there are those who create theories, those who propose methodologies, and those who ascribe to them. And then there are people who simply do what they do, intuitively, without knowing the science behind their actions.

I recently met such a couple, Michelle and Troy Wheeler. They founded Dream Theatre Inc., eight years ago in Roseville, California, as a year-round, full-time theater arts program for adults with disabilities (ages 18 to 64). The program was designed to instruct, develop and guide students with disabilities who want to become actors, musicians, dancers, visual artists and behind-the-curtain technicians.

While many day programs teach daily living skills, the Wheelers guide students in relationship building and maintenance with a focus on the social engagement skills necessary to facilitate them (i.e. inter and intrapersonal communication skills, self and co-affect regulation, trust, self-confidence, and more). Within the context of classes and annual performances, students learn how to be part of a working community that involves teamwork and personal responsibility.

“When our students enter our theater doors, they know there isn’t time to focus on ‘disabilities’—we all have our talents, our gifts to share, and ‘the show must go on,’” Michelle said during our recent interview at their Roseville theater. She added that along with her trainings and certifications, she is an artist and a dancer. She has performed in MTV videos and commercial ventures in New York. Troy is a photographer and musician (he plays guitar); he spent time performing in the Hollywood club circuit in L.A.

I was drawn to their program because of all the talk about polyvagal theory, music and movement theory and relational impact in psychotherapy. After much reading, I believe that current neuropsychological theory supports the assertion that social engagement and social bonding are the building blocks to healthy relationships. Stephen W. Porges has shown via his Polyvagal Theory that our nervous system needs to feel safe to allow proximity and contact, and that appropriate touch takes part in establishing trusting social relationships. There is also ample evidence supporting the impact of music in psychotherapy in general as well as when working with children on the autistic spectrum. Music has the potential to stimulate both brain hemispheres rather than just one and it encourages communicative behaviors and interactions with others.

More specifically, singing and playing an instrument support cognitive activity that supports self-awareness and improved relationships. Singing it seems is rather amazing.  According to Cassandra Sheppard, “When we sing our neurotransmitters connect in new and different ways. It fires up the right temporal lobe of our brain releasing endorphins that make us smarter, healthier, happier, and more creative. When we sing with other people this effect is amplified.” 

She also noted studies that have demonstrated that singing also releases oxytocin, which helps relieve anxiety and stress and is linked to feelings of trust and bonding. Singing helps people with depression and reduces feelings of loneliness, leaving people feeling relaxed, happy and connected. What’s more, the benefits of singing regularly are cumulative. As for movement, I think its use in psychotherapy as been well documented and not necessary to say more here.

I was intrigued. The Wheeler’s curriculum is clearly ‘polyvagal informed’ without any academic knowledge of Porge’s research or currently identified and accepted biobehavioral and psychosocial influences in educational settings. It was refreshing to talk with them and their students and see their work in action.

In the Beginning
Before founding Dream Theatre, Michelle spent nine years working as an art teacher at a local day program for adults with disabilities. Early in her employment, she explained, she had noticed that a lot of clients worked with their head down, their eyes on the paper, focused on their drawing, their own projects. They were self-focused but not part of the community; there was no engagement with the person sitting beside them. She said the teachers played quiet music, that quiet was enforced; loud noise, talking was not encouraged.

“Many people thought, back then, that overstimulation would overwhelm people with disabilities. But there is a group of individuals who are highly functioning who need all that distraction. This group has all this energy,” she said. “They were constantly getting into trouble at the center because they were not sitting quietly, not drawing alone; they wanted social engagement. I asked the program director if I could take a couple of the students on stage and just mess around with some theater arts stuff. I had this old Carpenters cassette tape, so we started learning how to sing their songs. I was teaching singing, then dancing. But the other teachers found our performance arts disruptive, so I found space for us over at the Veteran’s Hall.” Then, a new director appeared who didn’t share Michelle’s vision.

Welcome Dream Theater, Inc.

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Reference: Sheppard, C. (2016). The neuroscience of singing. Retrieved from https://upliftconnect.com/neuroscience-of-singing/?fbclid=IwAR3L-kX6Wjev8ezXfo8-W1QEV79H0Z767MWW8w9AoY7Xng4CW7vCuV1aUEQ