University of Colorado Boulder: Scholars in speech therapy, theater help aphasia clients stage a play
At the end of Ronald Dahl’s classic children’s novel, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory—and the no-less iconic 1971 film version, Willie Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, starring Gene Wilder—Charlie Bucket is the only child remaining after a wild tour of the manic chocolatier’s magical factory.
The other four children who received “Golden Tickets” to join the tour have all been literally thrown away, flushed away, shrunken or inflated and turned blue, punished for succumbing to their ingrained bad habits. Wonka rewards Charlie, the only well-behaved, polite and unselfish child, by giving him the entire factory.
Though presented as dark, knowing comedy on both page and screen, and beloved for generations, the novel’s ending is also starkly uncompromising.
So when clients from a University of Colorado Boulder’s therapy group for aphasia—a neurological condition, often caused by stroke, that impairs the ability to speak and understand language—performed the play on June 26 and 27, they devised an alternate ending.
“They constructed the end of the play to be much more inclusive than the actual movie or book,” Gerland says. “It was really special and quite beautiful.”
The cast of nine even wrote a crucial response for Charlie when (Willie Wonka) asks what he wants to do with the factory: “Can I share it?”
“The clients decided they would like to bring everybody back … so (the characters) could share what they learned from the process,” says Oliver Gerland, associate professor of theatre and dance and chair of the Department of Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is the second play performed by actors from the therapy group, following 2019’s The Wizard of Oz. Christina Riseman and Holly Kleiber, clinical faculty members and speech therapists in speech, language and hearing sciences, initially approached Gerland about putting on a play, inspired by similar Chicago’s Center for Aphasia Research and Treatment, where drama therapy has improved client communication and mood, and the Adler Aphasia Center in New Jersey.
The idea, in part, was to help people with aphasia gain confidence in communication and other skills that translate from stage to the rest of their lives, says Gillian Nogeire, a theatre and dance PhD candidate who played an integral role in both productions and defended her dissertation on using theatrical practices as an intervention for aphasia in April.
Nogeire began working with clients on the second production during the summer of 2021, exploring four potential stories to perform: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Lord of the Rings, Romeo and Juliet and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The group played scenes from all four and eventually settled on Dahl’s classic tale.
“It’s really important to our group that the play not be about aphasia,” says Nogeire, who will graduate this summer. “The Adler Center is doing plays that aren’t about aphasia, and that aligns with the … ‘life participation’ approach, which helps (clients) to develop skill sets they can use in their outside lives, where aphasia is not the focus.”
Three new actors from the program joined six Oz veterans for the new production.
“We had a lot of the same actors … and it felt like they could take on more of a leadership role and become more involved. They were more comfortable in coming up with the story itself and speaking out—‘How about we try this instead?’” Riseman says.
Indeed, cast members weren’t shy about asking for more lines or creatively solving technical issues, for example, when the group reworked the comeuppance character Mike Teavee. In the novel and film, he is shrunken to the size of a chocolate bar through a bit of fanciful technology, but the group conjured a more believable scene in which Mike is “disappeared” through an Old West-style showdown with Wonka. What’s more, when the actor playing Mike was not able to perform, the daughter of the actor playing Wonka was able to step in at the last minute.
“The actors literally came up with that the day before the performance,” Gerland says. “We are growing a group of actors who can improvise and create in the crush of the moment.”
On the speech-therapy side of things, Kleiber says the evolving nature of the production and its various challenges echoes the reality of human interactions and conversation beyond the stage, in the real world where clients live.
“I hope folks feel like they are better communicators at the end of this,” she says. “This is what conversation is. You don’t know what the other person is going to say, and it’s important to be able to improvise in the moment.”
The new production was funded in part by a donation from CU Boulder’s Nature, Environment, Science and Technology Studio for the Arts, or NEST, a network of centers and other campus units that combine artistic practice and scientific research to explore modes of communication.
I hope folks feel like they are better communicators at the end of this. … This is what conversation is. You don’t know what the other person is going to say, and it’s important to be able to improvise in the moment.”
Students in both departments participated in the production, helping the actors prepare in myriad ways, from running meetings to working scenes.
“Our role was to use strategies we’ve learned to work with (clients) to help them refine their skills in the play,” says Arielle Stein, who is studying speech language pathology and worked on the production as a graduate clinician. “Whether we were giving cues or helping them come up with lines, we were just encouraging them to learn how to communicate in a different way and to gather confidence to communicate … using gestures more, making your voice louder.”
When they performed before an invited audience of friends, family and members of the production team, clients got the boost that every actor is looking for, the rush and exhilaration of being onstage, pushing through any jitters they may have had.
“In that moment, they forget there is anything wrong,” Riseman says.
And all their hard work paid dividends both on and off stage.
“The heart of this group … is incredibly supportive of one another. One person’s successes are everybody’s, one person’s struggle is everybody’s struggle,” Kleiber says. In the rest of their lives, “they are vulnerable every day. Every time they try to communicate, they might expect trouble. To do that in front of an audience just blows me away.”