Whether via film, TV, or stage, the performing arts have always had the power to transport us to another world, often acting as a salve for what ails us.
The ancient Greek tragedies entertained early audiences and provided new insights into the human condition and catharsis.
Later, Charlie Chaplain’s “Little Tramp” warmed the hearts and tickled the funny bones of silent-film fans who were awed by the new motion-picture technology.
Today’s megabudget blockbusters and captivating TV series instantly whisk us away from our worries into magnificent interstellar adventures, fantastic earthbound wonderlands, or intricate character-driven mysteries.
More recently, several artists have used their talents to go beyond providing a mere diversion. They’re hoping to create lasting change in the world by doing things like helping us recognize that disability is a limited concept, strengthening the voice of battered women, or helping disadvantaged youth write their way to better self-esteem.
Changing the Way We See the Disabled
Fern Field Brooks is a multi-hyphenate artist. The Emmy and Peabody award-winning director, writer, and producer directed the Academy Award-nominated film “A Different Approach” starring Michael Keaton. It was the first short film to actively encourage the employment of workers with disabilities and it was so effective that it garnered her the distinguished service award from the president of the United States.
“I started in the business working for Norman Lear on the series, “Maude,” she says.
“There was a ground-breaking episode involving a class reunion where Maude avoids a best friend who has had a stroke and is now in a wheelchair with half her face paralyzed. Finally the woman confronts Maude, saying, ‘You hate me because I scare the hell out of you.’ It made me realize that the disabled just want to be treated like the rest of us.”
Field Brooks then went on to hire the first regularly featured actress with a disability in a TV series (Geri Jewell who has cerebral palsy in “The Facts of Life”). She also created The Media Access Awards with late husband, Norman Brooks, after a disabled man challenged her to do more than just feature disabled actors in her projects.
He wanted her to change how the disabled are represented across the board in the entertainment industry. In the years since, the Media Access Awards have helped obliterate stereotypes by rewarding holistic, well-rounded representations of people with disabilities in the media.
Most recently, Field Brooks co-executive-produced the Emmy and Golden Globe award-winning ABC series “Monk,” starring Tony Shalhoub, who played a lovable widower suffering from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.
“I believe most important are the changes it made in the lives—and feelings—of the nondisabled people who worked on those shows,” said Field Brooks. It changed us irrevocably.”
Empowering the Voices of Battered Women
Tasia Valenza-Stern began acting professionally in 1984 at age 15 opposite iconic actor Sean Penn in the film “Crackers” directed by the esteemed Louis Malle. But the beautiful brunette is more often recognized for her long-running, Emmy-nominated role of Dottie on “All My Children.” She played the role for years before becoming one of the top voice-over artists in the country. For the past several years, Valenza-Stern has been using her voice to help others find theirs.
“I recently taught a 15-year-old girl how to stand up to bullies by helping her to respect herself and then demand respect from others by coming from a place of power, conviction, and courage,” said Valenza-Stern.
“All my life, my voice has been a powerful thing for me; but I realized it isn’t that way for everyone.”
Valenza-Stern teaches the art and technique of confidence and verbal communication. She teaches people how important their voice is.
“We forget that people can often know exactly how we feel about them simply by the way we say their name,” she said.
As digital platforms and social media come to mediate human relationships through the workings of algorithms and artificial intelligence, learning to use one’s voice properly may be more important than ever. The healing and intimacy we experience during human voice-to-voice exchanges can never be duplicated by machinery, nor matched in anyway by emojis and text messages.
But whether she’s demonstrating vocal techniques to command classroom attention, or working one-on-one with battered women, Valenza-Stern says her most important message is to be aware of how we speak to ourselves.
“It’s very difficult for most people to say aloud to themselves ‘I love myself,’ but it’s so healing. It’s important to say it aloud,” she said.
“One thought cancels out another, but our psyches really register affirmations spoken aloud.”
Playwriting to Improve Self-Esteem
Thomas Kellogg is a successful actor, director, and playwright who has worked with some of the biggest names in the business. He’s spent the last decade giving back by helping young people on Native American reservations to hear the power of their voices as playwrights.
“Most of them are teenage, though I’ve worked with kids as young as 9 or 10. But 12 or 13 is a great age for them to start expressing themselves because that’s when they start checking out, getting lost,” he said from the Coeur D’ Alene Reservation in Idaho where he conducts a week-long program each summer teaching young tribe members to write full-length plays with two characters.
“They learn the components of dramatic storytelling and create several characters which are profiled using their own greatest desires,” he said.
“Then they decide which two characters they want to work with.”
Kellogg’s program, called MAPP (Mentor Artists Playwrights Project) culminates with professional actors performing the plays before the community.
Kellogg also works within refugee communities, with children in foster care, and with other marginalized groups that experience higher rates of alcohol and drug abuse and suicide.
“We are honoring their voices,” he said. “And improving their self-esteem.”
The Benefits to the Artists
For Thomas Kellogg, Tasia Valenza-Stern, and Fern Field Brooks, the personal rewards of using the arts to empower these communities go well beyond winning awards or accolades. But as fate would have it, Valenza-Stern just won her very first Emmy in connection with voice-over work she donated to Wild Animal Sanctuary, a philanthropic cause she believes in.
Joni Ravenna Sussman is a freelance writer specializing in health and wellness. Her articles have appeared in dozens of national and regional publications over the years. She is also a playwright and TV writer. Contact her at Joni.Ravenna@gmail.com