Theater professional Laura Borgwardt has a calling for working with artists and students with special needs. Not only did she co-found a nonprofit that provides a creative and social outlet through the arts to individuals with developmental disabilities, she is also an ArtsConnection master teaching artist making a huge impact on elementary and high school students.
As an actor, Laura enjoys viewing and participating in a range of genres. Laura’s involvement with an all-female Shakespeare company performing versions of his plays in New York City, at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and in Istanbul, Turkey shaped a new personal philosophy on storytelling and how to utilize her talents to serve a purpose. Laura says, “I’m interested in telling stories that get audiences thinking; putting themselves in other people’s shoes and checking in on their own lives to see where they can be kinder to themselves or others.” In addition, performing in Turkey where the audience may or may not understand English, Laura relied on movement as the universal language. Through her movements on stage she transmitted feeling, story, and meaning and provided a physical example of practicing empathy and collaboration, and developing friendships.
Likewise, she incorporates this emphasis of movement on stage in her work as a teaching artist. While engaging with students with autism and other special needs, Laura relies on movement as a universal language, enabling non-verbal students to communicate. For example, through choreography, she guided students in their creation of an original musical titled, The Superheroes of S.O.A.R. (Safety-Ownership-Achievement-Respect, the school motto) at elementary school P168 in the Bronx. Students move, some with help from their para-professionals, to personify feelings of excitement, happiness, achievement and wonder.
At P94M—The Spectrum School she leads the Exploring Careers in Theater class where high school students on the autism spectrum learn about various theater jobs including the box office, ticket-taker and concession positions, as well as running the prop and wardrobe rooms and being an usher and lighting designer. The course, full of field trips, guest speakers and in-class workshops, culminates in a mock-job fair where Laura collaborates with the teachers at P94 to guide students in creating resumes and developing interpersonal skills useful in job interviews. This year, students participated in a job fair where representatives from Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, Little Kids Rock, and even a Broadway master electrician interviewed them. These high schoolers, who normally lack the level of communication skills required to interview, successfully engaged with the special guests. Students showed increased social skills and a boost in self-confidence—they asked questions, made eye contact and shook hands.
When thinking about the future, Laura would like to do more of what she’s doing now— teaching, acting, and creating theater. She hopes to continue to be fearless and say “yes” to opportunity so that she can remain an influence on providing access to the arts for all, and also being the storyteller who inspires her audience to self-reflection and to connect with one another.
“I am excited to be a part of a community that fosters creativity, active listening, social change, empowerment of the individual, and mindfulness of the group. I love seeing students find a passion or talent in something, especially theater. I’ve seen students stun their teachers with their abilities as theater artists.”