Laura Williamson’s Story. Laura is 46.
As told to Monique Armstrong
I can stand with those that are walking through deep waters because I’ve walked through my own.
My three-year-old son died. Unexpectedly. Doesn’t get much deeper than that.
Tragic loss can find us, but it is our response that determines whether we thrive beyond mere existence. I’ve lived a miracle and experienced crippling loss. In all of this, the response that I chose within my most difficult days, and, even now is belief.
I believe in the power of drama therapy.
I had the privilege to interpret the role of Hello Dolly’s Dolly Levi at Muncie Civic Theatre. The last time I had played Dolly was in High School. I was 16. There was a big difference playing Dolly at 40. I had lived a lot more life. I knew love, unimaginable loss, and been through a really dark time. I hadn’t acted in seven years, but I was ready.
There are three scenes in the play where Dolly is on stage alone speaking directly to her deceased husband. She talk about being ready to rejoin the human race. She wanted to get back to life.
I’m ready to move out in front
Life without life has no reason or rhyme left
With the rest of them, with the best of them
I wanna hold my head up high
I need a goal again, I need a drive again
I wanna feel my heart coming alive again
Before the parade passes by
Dolly struggled to move on with her life. Within each performance and rehearsal when Dolly committed to live again, I did the same.
As Dolly, I had the feeling that actors sometimes get of being witnessed by the audience. I was in costume. I was speaking Dolly’s words, not my own. These were my layers of protection that allowed me to tap into my feelings for eight shows in a way that traditional therapy couldn’t.
When we see the world through the eyes and emotions of another, we see the hope in their story, the possibility.
I believe in the power of theatre to move people, to help them find a community. I wanted to bring that to the students at Motivate Our Minds. MOMs runs an afterschool program that helps kids with homework and exposes them to people and opportunities they might not normally be exposed to.
I talked to Monique at MOMs about doing a drama program with her students. She was up for it. We called it The Bridges program. I showed up on a Friday with a box of scarves and my guitar.
The students, ages 11-14, came up with all the details of our play—the characters, how they were related to one another, the names, and backstories. It was a sort of ongoing soap opera, not meant to be a performance. It was about the process. Any big decisions in our play, they voted on. I was surprised by the setting they chose: an affluent middle class junior high in Southern California. Can’t get much farther from Muncie than that.
They’d put on the scarves as their costumes and transform.
There was another layer to the play. At this school in Southern California, there was a portal that once the students stepped through would transport them to another realm where they would have superpowers. They always enjoyed the superpowers the most.
I was always the most interested in the conflicts they would choose to face. They’d get hung up on the idea that someone was being accused of something they didn’t do, or a teacher playing favorites. It was always about fairness and grade school justice.
Ferguson happened during all of this. The verdict was going to be announced. That Friday before the verdict, I asked the students, “What if we did something around the Ferguson trial today?” Maybe we could gain some insight.
I asked if anyone would want to play the cop. One kids said he would. I’ll never forget what he said at the end when we talked about the experience, “I don’t know why the guy didn’t say he was sorry.”
We’d take off our scarves, de-role, and become ourselves again.
It took a while to win them over to go from being the “scarf lady” to being Laura. I started to mentor one of the boys who aged out of the program. He was talented. He could pursue theatre if he wanted. I encouraged him to get involved at Civic. And he’s been involved ever since. I think being in the theatre surrounded him with a community who would accept him. He’s going to be in To Kill a Mockingbird with his mom and his little sister.
One of the other students did not trust me. She lived with her grandfather. She was tough, very tough, and it seemed like life was a struggle for her. She kind of had the attitude, “This is stupid, but I guess I’ll be here, so might as well participate.” She had a big personality and could sway the group. I recognized this and always tried to include her opinion.
She was a sort of stage manager of the MOMs cheerleaders. I noticed she had an eye for directing. So as I was helping to put together MOMs annual event, I asked her if she would help. She loved it. Now she’s very involved with the Civic Theatre where I’m the executive director. When she sees me, she gives me hugs. She’s worked on the kids’ shows at the theatre.
She is back stage wearing a headset. She pulls the curtain up revealing the stage that the boy I mentor dances and sings on, the same stage I played Dolly on.
The same stage where pretending to be someone else encouraged me to live again.
Laura Williamson is the executive director of the Muncie Civic Theatre where she also regularly performs and directs.
Monique Armstrong oversees the overall operations of Motivate Our Minds, Inc. With a B.A. in Public & Corporate Communication from Butler University, and a M.A. in Executive Development for Public Service from the Ball State University Teachers College, Armstrong brings both professional and educational experience.
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The Facing Project is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that connects people through stories to strengthen communities. The organization’s model to share stories and raise awareness is in cities across the United States focused on topics such as poverty, sex trafficking, mental health, immigration, and more. Facing Project stories are compiled into books and on the web for a community resource, used to inspire art, photography, monologues and—most importantly—community-wide awareness, dialogue, action, and change toward a more understanding and empathetic society.
This story originally appeared in Mentoring in Muncie, a publication of The Facing Project that was organized by Big Brothers Big Sisters of Delaware County in Muncie, Indiana.