The Project Final Report

Sophie MacArthur

Dr. Florescu  

August 22,  2018

The Project


I really enjoyed working on this research project with my mentor, Doctor Catalina Florescu. I was honored when she asked me to do it with her at the end of the fall semester of 2017.  Dr. Florescu was my professor then, for the second semester in a row. I really liked both of the classes that I was in with her and loved having her as a professor. This project was great for me to work on because for our research I read to two plays, Ella Carmen Greenhill’s Plastic Figurines and Dear Evan Hansen written by Stephen Levenson with music by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, both of which I could relate to in one way or another.

Plastic Figurines was about 18-year-old Michael and his older sister Rose dealing with their mother’s cancer and her eventual death. Michael has Asperger’s Syndrome. This makes the play all the more complicated because Rose now has to give up her own life to care for her brother. After their mother is gone, it seems as if she is the only family member left to do the job. She loves her brother but she also resents having to give up her life to look after him, which is not surprising. I know based off my own parents that taking care of and raising a kid with special needs is rewarding but challenging. Although I don’t have Asperger’s like Michael, I have my own struggles and my parents have needed to guide me throughout my life. I’m sure It’s never easy to watch your child struggle. Like Rose, my parents had to put some of their lives on hold to make sure I was successful. I am now in college and will graduate with a degree in just a couple short years. This is a wonderful accomplishment, something I never thought would happen when I was little. However, getting to where I am today wasn’t an easy ride. I had to work twice as hard as the average kid to get here and my parents helped with a lot of that. I think my point here is that although Michael and I have different diagnosis I can recognize some of myself in him and understand his struggles and frustrations. I can also understand Rose’s struggles and frustrations because I know a little about what it’s been like for my own sister to grow up with me. So why don’t we have these kind of topics in plays more! Ones that people like me can relate to even if we don’t have exactly the same diagnosis.

Dear Evan Hansen, a musical, with music by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, written by Stephen Levenson, also covers a topic I can really relate to and feel is not represented in the theater world enough. This is anxiety disorders, both social and general. I was diagnosed with OCD at a pretty early stage in my life. OCD affects many parts of me and it can be a real battle to fight against it. It can kind of make life suck sometimes. Evan Hansen, the main character of Dear Evan Hansen, struggles with anxiety similar to mine. He is very awkward socially. I’m not awkward socially but I can struggle with socialisation, especially amongst peer groups of larger quantities that I don’t know on a deep level. Evan also struggles with confidence in himself which is another thing I can relate to. I am very proud of all my accomplishments and like myself as a person for the most part. However, that doesn’t mean that I’m not hard on myself and get frustrated easily when I might not be able to do something right. I tend to compare myself to others and feel insecure if I think they are better at something than me.  

When I worked with Catalina in the two classes, I felt like she saw me the way I wanted to be seen. A girl who needed a little extra accommodations in class but could also keep up with the class and be treated like a normal student. I think it’s fitting that she asked me to help her with a project that would promote more awareness of disability at Pace. I had seen The Curious Incident of the Dog At Night when I was out on Broadway, but did not really know that any other plays about people with special needs existed until I read Plastic Figurines. Up until I first saw then read Dear Evan Hansen, I only knew Next To Normal touched upon anxiety disorders. I learned this summer that there are more plays that represent these kind of things then I originally thought  but there could still be much, much more.

1 thought on “The Project Final Report”

  1. Summer Grant 2018, Pace U
    Final report: Theater Education and Disability Studies
    Faculty/Mentor: Catalina Florina Florescu, PhD
    Student/Mentee: Sophie MacArthur

    Several cognitive studies have already shown an increase in the brain’s activity and performance when theater is introduced to students early in their education. Since our study focuses on college students, it is meant to prove how theater courses increase the students’ awareness of the world in its complex diversity. Theater is a celebration of that for it offers a possibility to stage simultaneously what we love and what we fear, what keeps us down and what keeps us dreaming and hoping. Students with disability in particular bring yet another perspective and help us develop an even more complex understanding on how theater teaches us life lessons.
    That being said, working with a student who is deeply involved and willing to thrive despite her challenges is a testament of character. Sophie’s voice and charming personality will help both of us advance in our goal of seeking other ways (i.e., theatrical) to improve students’ learning experience at Pace.

    Sophie was assigned to read two plays and do several projects. The first play was Plastic Figurines by Ella Carmen Greenhill. This is a powerful play about two siblings coping with too many things at once and it’s so genuine that one feels the characters deeply. When Sophie was commenting on the play, she remarked its ending being both sad and powerful. As readers we could see the oldest sibling’s frustration at having to deal with her brother’s health problem while they do not have the support of their parents. Rose has matured too fast and that shows how difficult it is for her to find balance to keep facing these harsh realities (father, absent; mother, dying; younger brother on the Autism spectrum). It also shows that we get tired, and that does not mean we don’t love the others, but we need breaks to restore our emotional and physical strength. It also suggests that more people should be trained to step in when a situation like the one portrayed in the play happens in real life.

    Trying to explain the title of the play Sophie writes, “Michael likes playing with plastic figurines in the way that kids on the spectrum typically do. It keeps him calm and gets him into his own world, which is common for people on the spectrum when they hone in on something. Therefore, I think the title could have a figurative meaning as well. It is hard for people like Michael on the Autism spectrum to show emotion so maybe he seems almost plastic when talking about his mother since he can’t really seem to express deep sadness over her death. Instead, he goes into his own little bubble and plays with his figurines, further representing a similarity to one of these toys.” Sophie is right in making these statements, signaling the alarming call to people who could say harsh words without knowing what needs and frustrations and chemical imbalances exist in one’s body and mind. Instead of judging, we may observe and then hopefully offer a better help.

    The second play was Dear Evan Hansen by Steven Levenson. This is a musical with a lot of success because it speaks about how little we may know our kids. Just because they return home that does not mean they are safe there. The musical also speaks about how we have forgotten to communicate, how terrified we may feel we may be judged if we do not act in a certain way.
    Instead of my own conclusion, I let Sophie’s remarkable reflection to guide readers through what we can do to educate ourselves on the vast field of disability and maybe, just maybe, rethink it so we do not exclude the other, but treat them with respect and kindness. Sophie did a great job writing as she does best, i.e., from her heart. Speaking about loneliness that is common to both health and ill people equally, Sophie writes: “Loneliness is like a vice. In can grip you tight and refuse to let go. It can make you feel like there is nothing in this world worth living for. It is not a pleasant feeling, probably one of the most unpleasant feelings out there. We all feel lonely at times. We also all feel sometimes that we should not take chances because when we’ve tried in the past, we’ve been shot down. This is not a pleasant feeling either and we’re always afraid to try again. Fear can be a vice too. Instead of being disappointed again you simply don’t try. But this is wrong. If we never try we don’t get anywhere. Life is tricky. It will knock you down more times than you can count. The trick is to get up again and keep going until you conquer it.” This heartfelt paragraph speaks to Evan and all others who may have felt the need to hide their insecurities and fabricate an identity that was not theirs. Plays like the ones Sophie read over the summer attest the importance of letting fictional characters open our own wounds so that we learn how to let go of fears.
    Thank you, Sophie. You will be a fabulous educator one day and I am honored to have met you! Your friend, Catalina

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