The Healing Powers of Imagination and Laughter

A free theater program, Only Make Believe, marks 12 years of bringing the healing power of laughter and imagination to more than 25,000 chronically ill kids and those with disabilities throughout hospitals in New York City. 

Only Make Believe Skit
Actress Kimberly
Hebert goes in
for a high-five.
Courtesy Big Picture Media

Dena Hammerstein was for many years a devoted volunteer who brought sick children out to the theater, believing in the healing powers of the performing arts. In 1999, Hammerstein founded Only Make Believe, which brings free theater to chronically ill kids and those with disabilities. The organization now serves more than 50 hospitals throughout NYC and has reached more than 25,000 kids.

Only Make Believe’s interactive live performances allow children to perform alongside professional actors, transporting them from the hospital to a world of their imagination. “It is a terrific escape from the daily life of being in a hospital,” Hammerstein says. “Kids are free to fly and do activities that are usually not available.”

Only Make Believe Theater Therapy
Kids often take center stage in performances.
Charlie Samuels

The organization, which has received celebrity support from actors including Jude Law, Julia Stiles, and Mike Meyers, also helps children build self-esteem and allows them to express themselves in creative ways, Hammerstein says. “I have seen kids sing a song we taught them before going into surgery and children speaking in social situations that are usually mute.”

Each hour-long performance includes three professional actors who perform a specially written show with a theme song and a trunk full of props and costumes. The shows are performed in a six-week series, and each week features a new performance. “The kids and the actors get to know each other this way and all get to take a bow together at the end,” Hammerstein says.

With a mission to reach as many kids in hospitals as possible, Only Make Believe recently expanded to the Washington, D.C. area. Hammerstein says she hopes to eventually bring Only Make Believe to kids across the U.S and internationally.

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