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Building Bridges With a 'Fence'

August 27, 2014 By:
Diane McManus, JE Feature
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Max Marlowe (left) of Germantown Friends School and Gregory Viola of HMS School for Children with Cerebral Palsy appear in a scene from The Other Side of the Fence.
In a scene from a new documentary, the meeting room at Germantown Friends School is empty. Soon it will be filled, but not for the kind of worship service typically held in such a space.
 
Rather, it will be the scene of a school performance — one that has drawn upon the collective work of music therapist and playwright Andrea Green; students from two schools, GFS and HMS School for Children With Cerebral Palsy; as well as teachers, staff, parents and volunteers.
 
All are engaged in creating a safe space for artistic expression for students of varying abilities and backgrounds. Some of the cast members have cerebral palsy, some have other struggles not as apparent to a casual observer.
 
Their 2012 production, The Other Side of the Fence, centers on two adjoining farms and the farmers’ fear of each other. Yet as the play unfolds, so do friendships, first between two pigs, Ham and Bacon, and then between animal residents on both sides of the fence.
 
As with other fables, this one models a lesson for its human audience: The barnyard fence is a metaphor for the fences we construct to protect ourselves from those we fear or mistrust. Who better to present this lesson than children who seem to represent two sides of a fence, but who have more in common than they realized?
 
While this musical collaboration— running from 1982 to 2012   — involved just two schools and two groups of students, it’s about to receive a much wider billing as the subject of Henry Nevison’s film, On the Other Side of the Fence.
 
The documentary premiered weeks ago at a special Philadelphia Film Society screening in Center City. Next, it will be shown on MiND Channel 35 — along with Nevison, the station is the film’s producer — on Sept. 8, at 8 p.m. (For more screenings, go to: mindtv.org/fence.)
 
This project and story go back more than three decades, when Teresa Maebori, a teacher at Germantown Friends, was disturbed by a student’s reference to someone as a “retard.” She said she wanted her students to move past this kind of labeling and respect one another.
 
To that end, she took a group of them to HMS, hoping they would interact with the challenged children there. It was then that she met Green.
 
A Jewish music therapist-composer-playwright who taught at HMS until her retirement a number of years ago, Green came up with the idea of bringing students from GFS and HMS together to participate in a musical. Maebori and Green then collaborated on the project. Students were each assigned partners from the other school.
 
The partners worked together during the once-a-week rehearsals to build not only a musical but bonds of friendship. Initially nervous — a word used by every child interviewed in the film — the GFS students soon overcame their fears as they got to know their partners.
 
Often that fear centered on not knowing what to say, as exemplified by former GFS student Maya Plimack. Yet  she discovered that when she and the other student met, “I knew what to say,” she is quoted saying in the movie. 
 
Although many with cerebral palsy have difficulty communicating except via assistive devices such as computer screens or through blinks, nods and other non-verbal means, these devices often proved to be enough when the students worked together.
 
The students from HMS overcame shyness as they began interacting with their partners and came to trust them, many involved with the project said.
 
Amy Warmflash, whose daughter, Jordana, now 22, attended HMS and participated in a handful of performances through 2010, recalls that at first Jordana feared crowds and performances, even to the point of crying on stage. Yet she later said she “loved” her involvement.
 
Warmflash reflected that for her daughter, the musical was “an opportunity for her to do something mainstream,” while for GFS students, it served to demystify disabilities as kids “learned to help automatically,” wiping drool or supporting partners’ heads if needed.
 
Kerri Hanlon, also the mother of an HMS student, Sean, confirmed the value of the musical for her son. For example, she noted, he sat taller and smiled while his partner performed. And he began trying to sing the songs from the musical, learning them well enough that if his mother sang along and changed the words, he would stop singing.
 
“Kids from both schools have their vulnerabilities,” she said. “Working with each other helps them to allow themselves to be vulnerable.”
 
This is borne out in the film, when GFS student Max Marlowe asserted that “you have a difference but there’s always something good about you that other people don’t have.”
 
Sometimes, as was the case with award-winning theatrical composer Michael Friedman, 38, participation in the musical — he was a cast member as a third-grader at GFS — can “ignite a spark.”
 
While music had always been part of his life — and he had acted in school plays before his first exposure to The Other Side of the Fence — this was his most extensive role as a kid, he noted in the movie. The show was “about moving beyond our comfort zone,” he said.
 
A successful filmmaker, Nevison met Green a couple of years ago, learned of her project and “wanted to do something with a greater purpose.” Green’s enterprise, then approaching its 30th anniversary in 2012, was a story, he said, “that needed to be told.”
 
He had established a connection with MiND TV and as the project moved forward, he was able to obtain more donations to help it along and, through Kickstarter, funding to see it through.
 
The musical wasn’t just about a single performance, Nevison said, but the transformation that took place in the cast during the rehearsals. 
 
Nevison wasn’t the only one who recognized the impact of Maebori and Green: For their efforts, both the GFS teacher and the HMS music therapist were honored by the City of Philadelphia last year. 
 
However, the partnership concluded with the 2012 performance and Maebori’s retirement, with the film providing a lasting legacy. 
 
According to Rachel Ezekiel-Fishbein, a spokeswoman for HMS and the film, “Every project has its champion. Teresa Maebori was that person — the heart of this collaborative at GFS.
 
We are eager to see the project continue, whether with GFS or another school.” 

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