For most of their lives, the children on stage at Willard Elementary School have lived in contrasting worlds, separated by silence and an educational system that has sometimes built walls around their differences.
But for the past six months, the group of 50 deaf and hearing students at the Pasadena elementary school have been brought together by a unique program utilizing the art of mime. It culminated last week with a mime musical production of scenes from the "Wizard of Oz."
For some students, like Tina Todd and Darlene Disney, the stage broke down barriers between the deaf and hearing, and provided ingredients for friendship.
"I always thought they (the deaf) were dumb because they couldn't understand what other people were saying," said Disney, an 11-year-old fifth grader.
"But now, I think they're smarter than most people because they have to learn the hard way. It taught me that deaf people can make friends, too."
The six-month pilot program, culminating with the musical entitled "Over the Rainbow," was so successful that school officials are planning to try it again next year.
"I've never seen anything like it," said Jai Belcher, who has been teaching at Willard's Deaf and Hard of Hearing Program since classes began two years ago. "It has worked out better than I had ever hoped. I have seen my children grow tremendously in self-confidence."
Outfitted in jeans, T-shirts, jumpsuits and suspenders made of yarn, the children did five free performances at San Rafael Elementary School, the Pasadena Art Workshops and at Willard last Wednesday, Thursday and Friday to capacity crowds of students, teachers, parents and the public.
The production was written and directed by Judi Garratt, who incorporated into the script the childrens' favorite exercises and pieces of magic they learned in class sessions. The children rehearsed their parts during the month before the opening.
Heavy Facial Makeup
No two performances were the same, Garratt said. Although there was a general script, the choreography was developed by the children, who wore traditional white pancake makeup on their faces accentuated by red lipstick and mascara.
"It was crazy," said Garratt, describing the scene on the stage. "There was stuff going on everywhere. It was completely unpredictable."
But that's what Garratt and the other teachers wanted.
"We wanted to have hearing and deaf children in a situation where no one would even notice any differences; they would be so intermingled and they would get along so well that no one in the audience would be able to tell who was deaf and who was hearing," said Debbie Halpren, who teaches preschool and kindergarten children in Willard's program for the deaf and hard of hearing program.
No differences were apparent as the children mimed various animals, occupations and scenes from the "Wizard of Oz." The deaf and hearing children danced together, with the deaf using the music's vibrations to keep a beat.
It Looked Chaotic
Although the scene on stage sometimes looked chaotic, it was the product of months of work and instruction.
"The end product is not as important as the process," Garratt said. "At first, nobody knew what was going on. They were confused. Now, because of repetition, they seem perfectly comfortable."
Lisa Crystal, director of the Pasadena Art Workshops, devised the mime program in March to integrate deaf and hearing children in the classroom by using mime as a communication tool. The class was an outgrowth of the Disabled Access Program, which places disabled children in afternoon classes at the Pasadena Art Workshops after school on weekdays.
"We felt it was worth it because there is very little chance for disabled and non-disabled children to socialize and work together," said Crystal, who approached the Pasadena Unified School District Board of Education in March with the idea. The special education program was funded by the California Art Council, the school district and a private trust.
Classes began in September for the children, ranging in age from 4 to 14, under the direction of Garratt, a professional mime for 21 years. Six years ago, Garratt began instructing children from low-income households in Duarte. Since then, she has taught children with Down's syndrome, the hearing-impaired and those with severe learning disabilities. She also teaches classes in the Disabled Access Program.
The chance to teach at Willard represented a new challenge for Garratt. Unlike her previous one-day workshops, the deaf program gave her opportunity to work with children for an extended period.
"A lot of times when I go into schools, I'll do one workshop and that's it. So they only get one impression of what mime is," said Garratt, who taught the class three days a week. "This way, I can see them change . . . and really work with them. By the end of the time, they're real confident."