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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

For performers, a healthy expression

On Stage! performers follow assistant director Katherine Crow during a Wednesday rehearsal  at Spokane Community College's Lair Auditorium. 
 (Kathryn Stevens / The Spokesman-Review)

The lights dimmed, and the piano keys twinkled. Offstage, Annita Powell took a deep breath, squared a black cowboy hat on her head and sauntered into the spotlight.

In a gravelly basso buffo, Powell launched into song.

I’m terrific

To be specific

I’m just wonderful to know

The song is classic Powell – in large part because she wrote it. The 56-year-old with schizoaffective disorder has emerged as a star in the annual music and variety show featuring Spokane residents with mental illness.

Powell’s comic timing and her self-deprecating humor have made her a crowd favorite. But for Powell and 11 other members of On Stage!, their performance may be more than song and dance: It may be therapeutic.

“Think about what it takes to get on stage and do this,” said Donna Douglass, founding director of the program and a music therapist. “We develop the skills to get people back into jobs or into school.”

The theater group will host its eighth annual show at 7 tonight at Spokane Community College’s Lair Auditorium. The group receives funding from the Washington Institute for Mental Illness Research and Training at Washington State University and a private family foundation.

The group will ask for a $10 donation to help offset its $1,600-a-month lease for a practice facility.

If the program can raise enough money, Douglass hopes to offer summer courses.

The benefits of the therapy, Douglass said, are evident in the success of cast members. They have gone on to college, jobs and even other theater groups.

For decades, Chris Weber, 56, has suffered from extreme anxiety and depression. Before her first show several years ago, Weber said she suffered a daylong anxiety attack.

“They said, ‘You know, you don’t have to do this if you don’t want to,’ ” Weber said. “But I got on stage and I performed. I got hooked.”

Today, Weber said, she is able to speak in front of hundreds of people about her mental illness.

Sheila Oliver, a shy 42-year-old cast member with bipolar disorder and depression, said the program has helped her make friends – even if she still lacks confidence in her singing.

“I know how to lip-sync real well,” Oliver said with a smile. “My dancing is better than my singing.”

Wayne Strong and Jeff Parr, both 49, said the training has provided confidence and motivation.

“I get home every day from the rehearsals, and I think, ‘Wow, this is great. I’m doing something productive,’ ” Strong said. “My energy level is always really high.”

Parr said the practices are “emotionally liberating.” The program also helps educate the public about mental illness and eases some stigmas, he said.

“People might think, ‘He can’t do this.’ I say, ‘Yes I can. Just sit back and relax. You’re here to have fun,’ ” Parr said.

At a rehearsal this week, assistant director Katherine Crow led the cast in a dance number as 29-year-old Peter Jose spun and sang, “Hats Off To You Spokane.”

To ensure the cast members project their voices through the auditorium, Crow encourages them to imagine a friend or loved one seated in the last row, listening intently.

“Can I put my horse back there?” Weber asked.

“Yes, your horse is right next to my grandmother,” Crow responded.

Crow helps the cast members reduce their stress through breathing and stretching exercises. She counsels them to counter stage fright with composure.

“Every professional has a moment of going blank,” she said. “What’s important is the grace with which we recover. We have complete permission to perform in any way we can.”

That license to fail – as long as the effort is made – frees them to perform, the cast members said.

“I’m petrified right now,” said Powell, who will sing several country songs in the performance. “But I try to remember the audience is out there to enjoy the show – they aren’t there to put me down.”

That gives her comfort and confidence, Powell said, each time she steps into the spotlight.