Actress Margaret Ladd, wife of playwright Lyle Kessler, says her life was changed the moment she stepped onstage for the first time. And she, in turn, has helped improve the lives of thousands through the Imagination Workshop, a non-profit organization that she founded in 1969, which enables homeless veterans, at-risk youth, and people with mental illnesses to tap into their emotions, gain insight, and express themselves by writing plays and performing them before an invited audience. Guided by professional actors, playwrights, and directors, “the participants create characters and then work with each other to imagine storylines, improvise scenes, and experience the pleasure of genuine creation,” says the Imagination Workshop’s website. The Workshop was launched at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, and is now located at the UCLA Semel Institute.
“It’s not therapy,” says Ladd. “It’s about giving patients self-esteem by creating a work of art. These people need to feel that there’s something in them that’s special and healthy, and that's what we work on.” Among the artists who have worked with the patients are Blythe Danner, Sam Waterston, and the late Jill Clayburgh.
Ladd was a shy child who was wounded by a trauma she experienced at a young age. She began acting at Bard College, and says, “My whole personality changed when I was playing a character. People would say to me, ‘You’re more real when you’re onstage than when you’re off.’ The fact that I could somehow be my real self onstage was like a miracle.”