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VCUarts program creates magic at the Children’s Tower

A new performance space at Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU welcomes inspiration and entertainment for pediatric patients, their families and hospital staff.

Man with puppet performs on a stage Uncle Ty-Rone impresses with his ventriloquism on November 28, 2023. (Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU)

By Brian Ivasauskas

The little girl laughs and claps with delight at the dinosaur puppet’s playful banter. She sits in her wheelchair, legs covered with a weighted blanket.

For this brief moment, she gets to be a child again, away from her hospital room. The beeps of machines that take her vital signs are replaced with a puppet’s voice and laughter.

The moment is made possible by VCUarts theatre professor and graduate program director Aaron Anderson, Ph.D., who also holds positions in the Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Medicine and School of Business. Anderson’s program brings performances to the Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU’s Children’s Tower each week.

“I’ve never seen a mission more simple,” Anderson said. “A child in the hospital is feeling a lot of emotions. They’re afraid, uncomfortable or bored. All they want is some normalcy. Every week, this project delivers more than that. It creates magic.”

Little girl in a wheel chair and her caretaker smiling

A child and her caretaker watch with delight at Uncle Ty-Rone’s ventriloquism performance. (Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU)

The project started as a simple question when Anderson was giving input into the design of the hospital’s new Children’s Tower with longtime friend and colleague P. Muzi Branch, former director of Arts in Healthcare program for VCU Health.

Both Anderson and Branch knew that kids could stay in the hospital for anywhere from one night to multiple weeks, depending on their medical needs. With a new facility in the works for downtown Richmond, the idea of a bright and cheerful performance space was coming to light, with the goal of bringing entertainment, fun and normalcy to kids of all ages.

During a planning session, Branch turned to Anderson and simply asked, “What do you think about making a theater for the children?”

With that, the vision was set.

New performance space plays an important part of the comprehensive Children’s Tower

In the summer of 2022, Anderson and Branch met with architects to design and create the physical space. The team from Children’s Hospital Foundation sought a donor to help bring the vision to life. Mustaches 4 Kids Richmond (M4K) – a multi-year supporter of CHoR – jumped at the opportunity. Each year, M4K Richmond encourages men to grow mustaches, raising awareness and money for local children’s charities. When the Children’s Tower was on the horizon, they pledged $500,000, which was matched to make a $1 million impact supporting the physical and technological needs of this new performance space.

While that work was underway, Anderson also collaborated with graduate students to develop the programming to fill the schedule, beginning in fall 2023.

From ventriloquists and puppet shows to the Latin Dance Ballet and selections from the Nutcracker suite, performers have mesmerized the children week after week.

“At its core, theater brings you into a magical world for a short time,” Anderson said. “Our performances provide these children that moment of magic: a moment where they forget they’re a patient and can just enjoy being a child. There’s never been something so transformative.”

Three dancers in red dresses

Dancers from the Central Virginia Dance Academy perform scenes from the Nutcracker. (Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU)

In fact, even the children have gotten their names on the marquee. Upon seeing the stage, one little boy asked if he could perform – and Anderson eagerly made room in the schedule. That same boy happily danced across the stage the next week for an audience of peers, family and caregivers. He was a star.

To date, every single performer has asked to return to the stage for an encore. Every single event sees at least one audience member cry tears of joy. And every performance brings smiles, laughter and joy to the children’s faces.

“And that is exactly why we do this,” Anderson said.

Expanding collaborations between arts and patient care

Anderson has big plans for the program’s future. He wants to add livestreams and bedside performances for those with difficulty leaving their rooms.

He’s working with Alexis Shockley, the director of VCU Health’s Arts in Healthcare program, to establish an artist-in-residence program for the entire health system.

Anderson also hopes to expand the program to encompass non-performance interactions with the kids, whether playing creative games with them or tapping into their imagination in some other way.

“I’ve been in theater for 35 years and have never seen anything as clearly impactful and magical as this,” Anderson said. “This represents so much more than just the close connection between the School of the Arts and the health system. This is a weekly act of moving a kid’s emotional dial from ‘I don’t want to be here’ to ‘This is magic.’”

Group of people smiling on a stage

A collaborative team from VCUarts and CHoR help make the performances for pediatric patients possible. (Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU)