One Friday afternoon last March, a group of theater-goers crowded into the auditorium at Salem’s Enlightened Theatrics, located a few blocks west of Oregon’s state capitol building. On the playbill were two world premieres: written and performed by members of Enlightened’s All Abilities Camp.
The “friends and family” audience was there to see campers’ hard work pay off.
“A lot of the kids brought in their own costumes,” says Sarah Olbrantz. “We had popcorn, soda. It was a very real performance.”
Sarah Olbrantz, who led the camp, remembers celebrating with her students after the show.
“They had these big smiles on their faces. It was an incredible energy to feed off of.”
The All Abilities Camp—funded in part by an Oregon Arts Commission Arts Build Communities grant—had 10 participants aged 8-14, and ran for a week in March of 2022. The course was designed for students who identify as neurodivergant, an umbrella term that can encompass people with diagnoses such as ADHD, ADD and autism.
“It’s very valuable to have a space where students don’t have to explain their behaviors, because everyone here gets it,” says Olbrantz. “It’s confidence boosting.”
The camp was modeled after Olbrantz’s work as a drama therapist, an interest Olbrantz first developed over a decade ago, as an acting student at Syracuse University. Olbrantz taught in what was then called the Young Actors Workshop (it’s since been renamed All Star C.A.S.T.), a theater program Syracuse offered to community members with developmental disabilities.
After graduating, Olbrantz moved to New York City—and took the skills she gained in the Syracuse workshop along with her. In 2010 she co-founded CO/LAB Theatre Group with three other Syracuse alums. CO/LAB’s mission was inspired by the group’s time at Syracuse, offering individuals with developmental disabilities a creative and social outlet through theater.
Last spring, Olbrantz brought her talents in drama therapy back to her hometown.
For its participants, the All Abilities Camp was a crash course in playmaking.
“We started with basic story building,” says Olbrantz. “Establishing characters, writing the script, and co-creating together.”
The campers divided into two groups based on age, performing their plays on Enlightened’s stage in the final showcase for friends and family. One of the plays was set in an abandoned Blockbuster store; the other revolved around a malevolent sorceress and her imprisoned cook.
Olbrantz says her curriculum is designed to let the students be in control of the storytelling. Children live in a world where they have little autonomy. “Especially youth who differ from societal norms,” says Olbrantz. “It’s really important for them to have a space where they are able to express their wants and desires.”
“Theatre has the opportunity to provide that space.”