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How a theater workshop helps kids and teens navigate grief

There is a beautiful secret in theater. In a way, every performance asks the same question: “Did this happen to you too?”

Even when the topic is something difficult — perhaps especially when it is difficult — there is comfort in knowing you’re not the only one.

At a workshop at HopeHealth’s Camp BraveHeart, two actors helped kids and teens tap into that feeling to navigate grief.

Phyllis Kay and Richard Donelly are both career performers at Trinity Repertory Company and The Gamm Theatre in Rhode Island, among many other acting credits. They also teach theater-style workshops for adults — for example, schooling new lawyers in stage presence. This past summer, when HopeHealth asked them to lead a camp program for kids, they readily said yes.

Camp BraveHeart offers a safe, supportive space for youth ages 4 to 17 who’ve lost a loved one. Like a classic summer camp, it’s a place for kids to have fun, try a variety of activities, and make friends. But that’s not all. Under the guidance of HopeHealth’s trained grief counselors, it’s also designed to remind them they’re not alone in their grief.

Here, surrounded by peers, the answer to theater’s unspoken question — “Did this happen to you too?” — is yes.

Woman in black dress with her arm around the neck of a man sitting down
Phillis Kay (left) and Richard Donnelly (right). Photo from The Trinity Rep, as published in the Providence Online.

“The goal was to really connect”

Richard and Phyllis, who met in a 1982 production of “Hamlet” and eventually became a couple, have an easy tag-team dynamic. One begins the story. The other adds a supporting anecdote. The first jumps back in.

This is how they remember the Camp BraveHeart workshops too. Over two July days in Attleboro, Mass., they introduced about 50 kids to the basics of acting and improv, divided into four sessions by age group.

“The first thing was trying to get the kids feeling like goofballs,” says Phyllis. “We got in a circle, jumped around, had everyone tell a story together. The story didn’t need to make any sense.”

“One kid might start with ‘I went to Florida to see my cousin and—” says Richard.

“—and I stopped by the space center and got on a rocket to Mars,” supplies Phyllis.

At one point, they had kids choose a word and impulsively come up with a gesture or movement. For joy, maybe they’d lift their arms exuberantly. Maybe they’d wrap themselves in a hug.

“The goal was to really connect with what that word feels or looks like in their world,” says Phyllis.

This is one of the biggest lessons in acting: how to connect, physically and instinctively, with emotions — all of them, even the tough ones.

In that way, it overlaps with one of the big lessons of grief: You have to feel it in order to move through it.

Related: He lost both his parents. Now, he’ll help kids and teens heal at Camp BraveHeart

A group of kids stand on a theater stage in the woods while others look on

“The person is gone, but the joy is still inside you”

Phyllis and Richard learned about Camp BraveHeart through Richard, who is a volunteer at HopeHealth. Just about every week, often several times a week, he volunteers at the Hulitar Hospice Center, visiting with patients at the end of life.

Sometimes, he simply sits with them. Other times, he can sense they want to talk. “How are you doing?” he’ll ask. “How do you feel?” Many times, they have something on their mind, and his gentle question is the opening they need.

He and Phyllis brought that same sensitivity to their theater workshop at Camp Braveheart. As the kids worked in small groups to create plays, some loved being center stage. Others gravitated to directing. Some felt more comfortable just watching. They encouraged all of it.

At one point, one teen took a break to sit on the sidelines. Someone had mentioned a Rolling Stones song, and it made her miss her dad so powerfully that she needed a moment. Phyllis has a vivid memory of her own mother connected to the Rolling Stones. When she and the Camp BraveHeart teen caught up after the workshop, they talked a little bit about how, as painful as it is to miss someone you love, their memory can also give you a lift.

“I think this young woman realized that, in a way, there was value in having to go to that place,” says Phyllis. “The person is gone, but the joy is still inside you.”

> Related: Where to put your love when you’ve lost someone special

“Your hearts start beating together”

That’s the magic of Camp BraveHeart: a supportive setting for kids to experience grief along with the full range of human emotions — from sadness to joy and everything in between.

In the end, that’s the magic of theater too.

“If you go back to the Greeks, there’s this whole idea of going to the theater to experience emotional catharsis,” says Phyllis. “You’re in a safe space. It’s dark. You’re feeling your feelings, you’re with people having a common experience. Your hearts start beating together.”

“And you’re not alone,” says Richard.


Are you coping with grief and loss? Find a virtual grief support group or reach out at (888) 528-9077 or CenterforHopeandHealing@HopeHealthCo.org.

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