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Actors inspire hospital patients in Washington

 Street Sense - USA 21 November 2019

Washington DC's acting troupe collaborates with hospital patients to develop meaningful play, with deep sense of humanity, to be shared through free performances. (632 Words) - By Nicole M. Jones

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For Wandering Souls, a drama troupe built upon the belief that the transformative power of art should be readily available to all, one good play has a way of leading to another.

Last fall, the players brought free productions of Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night"to 15 homeless shelters, senior programs, and hospitals around the city. The players came away from Saint Elizabeths Hospital feeling a special bond with the city's historic public psychiatric institution.

So over the course of this past summer, Wandering Souls Andy Wassenich and Elissa Goetschius returned to the hospital. With the help of Saint Elizabeths staff, they led an intensive playwriting workshop with patients there.

Out of their soul-searching and hard work came "Reflections: Plays From Saint  Elizabeth's Hospital," a production  woven out of  ten-minute meditations on themes of recovery, overcoming adversity, and hope.  The short plays include "Depression" by Walter Logan, "Broken" Promises by Alane Patterson, "Help"by Walter Logan, "Help Me and My Friends"  by Kevin McCain, "Hope" by Walter Logan, "Life Beyond Alcohol" by Lewis Ecker, and "Happiness" by Walter Logan.

A central theme that binds the separate small plays is a deep sense of humanity and kindness, said Becky Peters, artistic director of "Reflections. "

"In the plays themselves I was always struck every time I watched the show by the overwhelming desire to help someone else. The playwrights were told they could write about anything they wanted and they chose to try and help someone," said Peters.

"Here's a group of folks who we might be inclined to think need the help - but that's not how they see themselves. Instead they want to give as much as they can."

This was the third year that the Wandering Souls toured with free performances With each of their projects, they have hoped to open channels of communication and community. So after  rehearsing "Reflections" at Saint Elizabeths and the Church of the Pilgrims, near Dupont Circle, the troupe, including Luke Cieslewicz,  Lex Davis, Melissa Hmelnicky, Maya Jackson, Julie Roundtree and Akil Williams took their show on the road.

On October 1, the show premiered at Saint Elizabeths and after performances at Bloombars, a nonprofit community space, and Church of the Pilgrims. At the last performance there October 30, the crowd was small but the laughter filled the church to its high ceilings.

And once again, the Wandering Souls were living out their mission, shaped by convictions that  the arts have the power to fuel the imagination, encourage personal growth and unite  individuals and communities, and that the arts  offer riches that should not be seen as luxuries, but freely available to all.

"The play was mainly accessible to every and anyone, but mainly those who have silenced stories," said actress Maya Jackson. "We brought a different perspective, especially those considered fringe stories."

Creating, producing and watching the play had a strong impact upon the people in care at the hospital said Wandering Souls co-founder and executive director J.J. Area. He said the hospital staff found that patients began connecting more after seeing their experiences mirrored in the production.

"The project was very therapeutic for the playwrights," said Area. "One woman began communicating more after the production of the play.".

And the production team reveled in watching their audiences react and reading different emotions.

"I love watching the audiences connect with the work and hearing their immediate, visceral reactions and after the shows having this common experience as an immediate connector between us," said Peters. "This gives us a wonderful jumping off point to get to know one another and eliminate that sometimes awkward thought of 'what do we have in common' with this person I just met."

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