VCUarts program creates magic at Children’s Hospital of Richmond

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The little girl laughs and claps with delight at the dinosaur puppet’s playful banter. Now in her third month at the Children’s Hospital of Richmond, she sits in her wheelchair, legs covered with a weighted blanket. She’s had anything but a normal childhood. But for this brief moment, that’s what she is: not a patient. Just a child.

A child and her caretaker watch with delight at Uncle Ty-Rone’s ventriloquism performance. (Photo credit: Eva Russo, Children’s Hospital of Richmond)

The moment is made possible by VCUarts Theatre professor and graduate program director Aaron Anderson, Ph.D., who also holds positions in the School of Medicine and the School of Business. Anderson’s program brings a theater and performances to the Children’s Hospital each week. 

“I’ve never seen a mission more simple,” he 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.”

The project started as a simple question when Anderson was helping to design the hospital’s Pavilion Building with longtime friend and colleague P. Muzi Branch, former Director of Arts in Healthcare for the VCU Health System. 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. In the summer of 2022, Anderson and Branch met with architects to design and create the physical space. While that work was underway, Anderson also worked 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.”

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 next year 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.  

Anderson has big plans for the program’s future. He aims to add livestreams and bedside performances for those with difficulty leaving their rooms. He’s working with Alexa Shockley, the hospital’s director of arts in healthcare, to establish an artist-in-residence program for the entire health system. And he’s working 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.’”

(Lead photo credit: Eva Russo, Children’s Hospital of Richmond)