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Art&Seek Q&A: Arts Educator Belle Branscom

by Betsy Lewis 2 Apr 2009 7:09 AM

Belle Branscom has created LionHat, a nonprofit organization using theater games and performance skills to teach adults with Asperger’s Syndrome some gentle strategies for dealing with social interaction beyond their school years. She discusses the program as part of this week’s Art&Seek Q&A.



You knew people in high school who took only Advanced Placement classes but couldn’t get a joke or survive at a party. We called them nerds and geeks, and they seldom cared.

There’s a chance that they had Asperger’s Syndrome, a disorder on the autistic spectrum that affects people’s ability to interact socially but does not affect the intellect. Those with Asperger’s are usually super-smart: Albert Einstein is believed to have had Aspergers; the media routinely diagnosis Bill Gates with it. It is not uncommon.

Belle Branscom lives in Hideaway, Texas, near Tyler. Her adult son has Asperger’s Syndrome. Having studied drama at the University of Texas-Tyler, Belle has created LionHat, a nonprofit organization using theater games and performance skills to teach adults with Asperger’s some gentle strategies for dealing with social interaction beyond their school years. On April 25, Belle will give a presentation on LionHat that showcases musical and reader’s theater at the Tyler Public Library.  But she has much bigger plans for the future. She discusses them during a recent e-mail conversation as part of this week’s Art&Seek Q&A:

Art&Seek: Why are you focusing LionHat on adults, rather than children, with Asperger’s Syndrome?

Belle Branscom: Young adults with Pervasive Developmental Disorders (PDD) face new challenges upon graduation. Little opportunity exists for “continued” education for the postgraduate with Asperger’s Syndrome. There’s a dire need to fill the educational void for those who require more intensive instruction in social cognition and interaction.

A&S: What is the connection between theater and social cognition/interaction?

B.B.: Theatre is the fount of interaction. Augusto Boal, famed Brazilian theater artist of the 1960s, theorized that, “if people can practice different actions in ‘play,’ then they can take different actions in ‘real’ life.” Becoming a character in a play; walking in his shoes, seeing through his eyes “compels” a person to interact cognitively with that character, as well as the cast.

A&S: Your event on April 25 will showcase music and reader’s theater. What can those attending expect from the presentation?

B.B.: They will see theater disciplines in action. Reader’s theater will present actors reading a case file interview of two adults with AS speaking of who they are, their challenges and frustrations.  Music will focus on the deficiencies in social skills, transitioning and communication. Music is a non-verbal, non-threatening way of relating to others and provides a powerful means for communication for those with AS.  Musical elements such as beat, rhythm and musical patterns provide the consistency and structure where a person with AS can feel comfortable.

A&S: Why have you chosen to develop Lionhat in East Texas? What kind of response have you gotten from the local community?

B.B.: East Texas communities are unique in many ways. The concept of theater as an educational art form, coupled with connecting it to Asperger’s Syndrome, has been a challenge.  But awareness is being created. Those who have attended a presentation have been extremely interested in the concept, and of more importance, interested in the upcoming pilot program in June.

Choosing East Texas to introduce and develop LionHat’s mission is simple; that’s where I live and where my son can be part of the program.

A&S: How do you see the program evolving (as in your vision for the future)?

B.B.: I can answer this better after the pilot program.  As a former interior designer, one does not design until one knows for whom one is designing.

Short term objectives would be having a theater program workshop for continued education in place, connecting to either the University of Texas-Tyler or Tyler Junior College; expanding the workshop methodology to other locations, making it accessible to those in need; and integrating Theatre in Education as an interdisciplinary curriculum between the Colleges of Arts & Sciences and Education.

And my vision?  A center for research and exploration for the holistic teaching-learning culture.

A&S: How will you determine the success and weaknesses of the project?

B.B.: Success and weaknesses will not be determined by LionHat.  They will be determined by the Asperger himself; becoming part of his own life process . . . interacting socially in the work place, church and independent living.

There is a universal yearning to be “seen” and “heard” . . . to find one’s place in life.  And one can through theater arts.

The Art&Seek Q&A is a weekly discussion with a person involved in the arts in North Texas. Check back next Thursday for another installment.