By Steven Krolak
(NEW ALBANY, Ind.)–When the COVID-19 pandemic forced the world into lockdown, Kristen Gilbert ’12 had an idea to overcome the isolation: a virtual stage play that would allow socially distanced performers to share in a common effort.
The result is “A Smile Is Never Far Away,” a musical variety show written and directed by Gilbert and performed with passion, pathos, wit and verve by the TERI Players in Oceanside, California.
The TERI Players are people with autism and other developmental disabilities who act, sing and dance in the Performing Arts Program at the Training, Education and Resource Institute (TERI) Campus of Life, where Gilbert has just completed her first year as Adaptive Theater Instructor.
Founded in 1980, TERI serves more than 850 children and adults with developmental disabilities and their families whose needs that cannot be met by other existing programs.
The Performing Arts Program was added in 2009 and now includes music, songwriting, theatre and dance, “enabling individuals of all abilities to find a creative outlet through the Performing Arts and experience profound personal growth,” according to the TERI website.
Gilbert followed a winding path to TERI that now seems more like destiny.
After graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication with a track in Performing Arts and Technical Theatre, Gilbert spent eight years doing children’s theatre, touring 40 states and five countries. Working with just one colleague and as much costumes and props as would fit in a Ford F-150, she took schoolchildren aged five to 18 from absolute beginners to performers in an original play in a single week. Every community was a new and different challenge/adventure. Locales ranged from urban to rural. Cast sizes ranged from half a dozen to over 125. In underfunded schools, there was no supervision.
“It was on us to manage these kids while teaching them respect, responsibility, honesty and teamwork,” Gilbert said. “I looked at it as an incredible challenge to learn and grow while trying to be the best role model, leader and cheerleader for each new student.”
When it came to special needs kids, Gilbert often heard teachers and parents doubt their ability. In town after town, she delighted in finding ways to prove the doubters wrong. At the same time, she began to feel her new trajectory taking shape. That trajectory ultimately landed her at TERI as the new Adaptive Theatre Instructor.
“Adaptive theatre is not just making things work in general for our overall population, but adapting it for each and every one of my individuals specifically to what they need,” Gilbert said. “It’s up to me to observe, listen and try to change what we are doing to fit whatever it is they need.”
It’s perhaps not a radical shift for Gilbert, who had already learned to work with the range of possibilities lurking within each young actor. But the shift has definitely been amplified by the nature of working exclusively with individuals with autism, intellectual disabilities, cerebral palsy, epilepsy, severe behavioral disorders and learning disabilities.
Isolation has hit everyone hard. But it has been especially hard for those who depend on social interaction for mental health care.
Through the play, Gilbert helped to keep the group together in an engaging way that built on the cast’s personal tastes and talents.
“It started off as a challenge and turned into pure fun,” Gilbert said.
That fun involved writing the play, which takes the form of a big zoom conference, with the players brainstorming the creation of a play. Different cast members zoom in to display their performance talents, and before long, the brainstorming session has become the show. To make it happen, Gilbert returned to her road-show roots, driving to each cast member’s house with TERI’s music director, to film the different faux-zoom segments.
“I knew the different angles I wanted, the different styles I was incorporating, and the different expressions I would need while coaching the actors in their lines,” Gilbert said. “We dealt with outside nose, trash trucks, clocks and even me talking over the actors, but still got all the shots.”
Each filming session took two hours. With the footage in the can, she and the film editor constructed the final play.
“A Smile Is Never Far Away” shows off Gilbert’s connection with her cast, as well as her ability to adapt.
Adaptability is one of the watchwords of Jim Hesselman, director of the theatre program and now dean of the School of Arts and Letters.
For Hesselman, making lemonade out of lemons is a survival skill that theatre students must master if they are to be able to forge a career onstage. But even if they choose not to pursue theatre after graduation, adaptability is still a crucial life lesson.
Gilbert personifies Hesselman’s creed, finding innovative ways to mold her skill set to the demands of the moment.
Not surprisingly, he has kept in touch over the years, lending advice, guidance and perspective.
“Jim has been my mentor, my director, my professor and my dearest friend,” Gilbert said. “He was always there to be the sound wisdom I needed to look at the bigger picture and focus on my goals.”
Gilbert is certainly one to get the big picture. As for her goals, they have evolved from personal achievement on the stage to a deeper kind of fulfilment, through learning from those she teaches.
“With my group of individuals here, I have learned that every moment is a beautiful brave victory,” Gilbert said. “I have learned I have no barriers anymore because I have to be open to anything they are willing to express.”
From her years on the road and her time at TERI, Gilbert has an endless stream of stories about the power of theatre to change perceptions and lives.
She just didn’t realize until TERI how much her own life could be transformed by helping others.
“I get a glimpse into their imaginations and get to explore their world with them,” Gilbert said. “I am a changed person because of this, and this is why I know I am exactly where I need to be.”