Filming Peter Pan Foundation show for young patients
By Lou Fancher
The only thing equal to a delicious, star-shaped cookie is a theatrical production at which any kid or parent or person feels welcome.
That is the formula served up by the Peter Pan Foundation and its founder and director, Leslie Noel. Every year since 2007, when Noel’s philanthropic passion merged with a love of theater, she and the Lafayette-based nonprofit have presented annual musical theater productions and smaller community performances and events in the East Bay.
Often, the shows are not only entertainment for families, but are fundraising events to benefit children who are ill or living with disabilities. A commitment to serve kids who are patients at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland has brought PPF to the hospital to perform its “Wish Upon a Star“ on Veterans Day each year.
But in 2016, with hospital construction disrupting the day-off-from-school plans of young actors and teen actors in the organization’s Bay Area Magic Makers teen council, the show faced cancellation.
“They were unable to safely house us in the outpatient center where we usually perform,” said Noel. “Because the show is always filmed and broadcast live for the patients at the hospital, I suggested that we might still perform the show for a live “studio” audience and send in a recording of the performance.”
The video would then be made available to patients using the hospital’s in-room, closed-circuit television system.
At Danville’s Grange Hall, Noel and the cast gathered Nov. 11, for two special performances. The first show was for an invited audience of mostly friends and family, and was filmed for the children at the hospital.
Figuring to spread the wealth, Noel had weeks before contacted Stacey Murphy, senior program manager with Easter Seals Bay Area, a national organization serving individuals and families affected by disabilities since 1927.
Together, the two women developed a plan to provide a second, sensory-friendly performance for children and teens with developmental disabilities. Noel had worked with special needs students in high school and knew that music was a universal language that bridged the divide between children in the autism spectrum and typically developing children.
“I had often been told (since founding PPF) that the autistic community doesn’t have as many opportunities to attend live theater, nor be part of sensory-friendly theater experiences,” said Noel.
The film day provided a perfect opportunity to partner with Easter Seals. During the performance, the sound and lights were muted to reduce the sensory stimuli, and gluten-free treats, including cookies, were available.
“Johnny was definitely looking forward to seeing Peter Pan and to cookies in the shape of stars,” said Kat Negrete, a few days after attending the show. “He gets nervous around bigger crowds and is sensitive to sound. He had his fingers in his ears during the first half.”
But with time and the noise-canceling headphones Negrete collected from their car during intermission, she said her 5-year-old son adjusted. “He was captivated. He was smiling, so I knew he was OK.”
Negrete and her family live in Concord and said it was a relief to know in advance that the show was for sensory sensitive children.
“We didn’t have to worry about it ahead of time or leave with a screaming child because of a bomb blast, like at movies. We do drive-in movies because there, we can control the volume.”
Live musical theater is something we just can’t do anymore,” Negrete said. “ The biggest thing was knowing that I wasn’t going to be subject to nasty stares from parents, like I’m a bad parent if my child acts out or makes noise. I so appreciated it.”
The sentiment was matched by Walnut Creek’s Jennifer Koschmann, who attended with her 5-year-old daughter, Lily Koschmann. “It was a safe environment,” she said. “You didn’t have to worry if your child had to move around, or make noise. It’s accepted and celebrated.”
Koschmann has brought her daughter to special movie nights where reduced stimuli have helped, but said such opportunities are rare. Watching her daughter engage with the characters after the show she said was wonderful, but a “review” Lily provided during the show topped even that pleasure.
“Once it started, she leaned over and said, ‘This is the best show ever.’ It melted my heart. She asked if she could come again the next day, because it was so good.”
Although that wasn’t possible, the film that was created offers repeat viewings and inspired Noel and PPF to the next day film a “short” written by the teen council that features a fairy tale princess at a slumber party.
Approaching PPF’s 10th anniversary in January, Noel said plans include filming more productions, partnering with ESBA to hold respite afternoons for parents of children with disabilities, and continuing PPF’s open mic cabarets and other community and Children’s Hospital special events.
Because no foundation whose mascot is Peter Pan can resist, Noel added that a permanent home, a building to call “our own place for the magic to live,” is a future dream.