Interview With Maricha Miles, Executive Director of Only Make Believe
Only Make Believe is a New York City based non-profit organization that brings laughter and imagination to children suffering from chronic illnesses and disabilities. Dena Hammerstein founded the non-profit in 1999 in memory of her late husband, Broadway producer and director James Hammerstein, son of Oscar Hammerstein part of the legendary musical writing and composing duo Rogers and Hammerstein. The organization was created to bring live interactive theater free-of-charge to children living with chronic illnesses and disabilities. Only Make Believe provides theatrical workshops conducted by teams of professional actors, once a week for six weeks, free-of-charge to hospitals and other medical institutions. In only 13 years, this organization has expanded from performing at just one hospital for 100 children to reaching over 5,000 children in 50 hospitals.
Only Make Believe is dedicated to the principle that freeing a child’s imagination is a valuable part of the healing process. How did this come about? Was this a belief of James Hammerstein? Dena Hammerstein?
Before Only Make Believe began Dena Hammerstein volunteered in the pediatric unit at Rusk Institute at NYU Langone Medical Center. When Dena’s husband suddenly passed away in 1999 she created Only Make Believe in his memory, for his dedication to theatre and her own dedication to children in need. The concept of Only Make Believe developed out of Dena’s desire to introduce children living with chronic illnesses and disabilities to the magical world of theatre. Since trips to the theatre proved to be too overwhelming for many of the children, Dena decided to bring the theatre to them, helping to create a unique version of live theatre in which each child plays an integral part.
In the beginning of conception, what did the future of Only Make Believe look like? Was there the idea of expanding beyond the one hospital to more? To more than one state?
When we started we never imagined that we would be performing in so many hospitals. We began only providing the program to NYU Langone, and then it grew from there. We’ve seen the positive impact our program has on children and now our vision is to provide joy and inspiration to as many chronically ill children as possible, across the United States, and maybe even one day around the world.
I understand that each week for six weeks, a team of three actors provide interactive theatrical performances, free of charge, to hospitals. Do the actors stay the same each week, or is there a different set of actors each week?
Yes, we go into the hospital for six-weeks, performing a different, interactive show each week. We aim to have the same actors stay the same for the entire duration of the stay at the hospital. We feel it’s an important part of our program for the children to build a rapport and relationship with our actors.
How are the performances chosen?
The Only Make Believe shows are written especially for our audiences. Every script is fun filled interactive play for our special audiences and every performance is custom tailored to suit the population we serve. As a result, each OMB workshop is unique, fresh and fun!
How often do the performances change?
The kids see a new show every week. We have about 10 scripts in our repertoire now, and rotate them in and out. The six-week cycle starts with Day 1, where we explore all of the elements of theatre and introduce the kids to the tools necessary to create the magic of theater through games of imagination. Weeks 2 – 5 they see a scripted show, and on Day 6 we play scenes from the other shows with kids playing the starring roles.
How is each hospital or facility chosen?
We’re lucky because the hospitals are the ones contacting us. They hear about our program through their colleagues at other hospitals and call us to come and participate. We’ve grown steadily over the years through word of mouth.
What are some of the responses or stories from the children whom have had the pleasure to see one of the Only Make Believe performances?
“It’s cool and fun. We get to act and dress up, and pretend to be different people and things. We are stars!” Carlos and Maya, Room 407, A Harry Moore, June 11, 2012
“You opened my heart.” Matthew, Patient, Kings County Hospital, December 2008.
“I can’t wait to go back to my school to tell my drama teacher. That was fun. I needed some laughter.” 10 year old female patient, SUNY Downstate, Brooklyn, June 2008
“To: Only Make Believe. Sorry you all had to leave so soon. I will miss y’all. It’s been fun. Thank you for making me happy!” Mercedes, patient, Kings County Hospital, Brooklyn Inpatient Psychiatric Unit, June 2008
What are some of the responses or stories from the actors who have performed?
“On our way out, Barbara, one of the therapists told us that one boy, Elijah, who was pretty low on the autistic scale, was responding so well that they would have to reconsider his place on that scale. Pretty extraordinary!” Dan Domingues, April 17, 2012
“…we are able to totally integrate everyone (staff included) into the world of make believe.” Steve, actor, May 6, 2010. (Speaking about a performance at SUNY)
“The entire show was a really amazing experience and one of those shows that affirm why I enjoy doing this work. “ Dave, actor, April 7, 2010. (Speaking about a performance at St. Barnabas Union Community)
“I continue to learn from and enjoy working together with these two gifted actors.” Dave, actor, March 10, 2010. (Speaking about performance at St. Vincent’s Hospital – Inpatient Psych Unit)
“The kids were really excited to see us again.” Ashley, actress, March 3, 2010. (Speaking about performance at St. Vincent’s Hospital – Inpatient Psych Unit)
“OMB is just the right medicine for these kids.” Steve, actor, March 1, 2010. (Speaking about performance at Montefiore Hospital – Pediatric Unit)
Do the actors contact your organization to participate, or do you contact them?
Every week we receive submissions from actors wanting to work for Only Make Believe. We’re in the fortunately position because we don’t have a high turnover we don’t do auditions very often. We typically audition from the list of people who have expressed interest. Rarely do we hold open auditions. When we do audition, Dena Hammerstein says, “We look for talent, personality, adaptability, a sense of humor and generosity of spirit.”
What is the turn-around like for the actors? Are there any that are still with the company that started at its conception in 1999?
Some of our actors have been with us for over 10 years. We have very little turn over in our company of actors, which is a great thing. They really believe in the work we/they do and they see the impact the program has on the children. For our actors it’s the opportunity to practice their craft in a professional setting whilst helping children at the same time.
With the recent expansion to D.C., are there any plans in the future to expand nationally?
We hope so, but our focus for the time being is on Washington D.C.
What are some of the future goals of Only Make Believe?
Only Make Believe’s vision is to serve as many chronically ill children as possible across the United States and around the world. It’s an ambitious goal, but we feel very strongly that every child that is undergoing medical treatment can benefit from a little ‘make believe.’