In early 2012, Elaine Hall sat in the 2,703-seat Pantages Theater in Los Angeles, listening to her student of four years, Spencer Harte, singing opera in a benefit concert featuring such well-known names as Jack Black, Drew Seeley and Neil Young. A few years prior to singing in one of Southern California’s most prominent theaters, Harte was a shy, anxious, autistic eight-year-old in the Miracle Project, a revolutionary drama and music therapy program that utilizes artistic expression to “bring out the best of all abilities.” Hall, the founder of the Miracle Project, beamed as Harte confidently sang a beautiful lyric soprano.
Hall, better known to her students and staff as “Coach E,” is a pioneer in the field of artistic and performance therapy. The Miracle Project, which she founded in 2004, has a specific focus on musical theatre and film performance, and is consists of children and young adults who are on the autistic spectrum, their neuro-typical peers, dedicated teenage and adult volunteers, and a highly trained staff consisting of therapists and performers. “Coach E” oversees the entire program, and is directly involved with every class, performance and production. She “really feels blessed to be in the world of autism with such incredible kids with unbelievable gifts.”
Hall began her career as an acclaimed Hollywood acting coach, working with very successful actors and many major production companies. When Hall decided that she wanted to raise a child, but found herself unable to conceive, she made the admirable decision to adopt a two-year-old son from the former Soviet Union. About ten months after Neal was adopted and brought to the United States, he was diagnosed with severe autism.
Before his diagnosis, Hall had noticed strange patterns in her son’s behavior, such as very little verbal communication, but a strong desire to spin around, clap his hands and bang on pots and pans. While doctors recommended traditional behavioral therapy, Hall noticed that said behavioral therapy was actually causing more anxiety in the toddler.
Instead, she focused on relationship therapy, where she would spin around with him, clap their hands together, and “make a rock concert out of pots and pans.” The music therapy was the first time that she and her non-verbal son truly connected, and by using their imaginations she “joined his world…until over a year later, when he was able to merge into our world.”
Eventually, she decided it was time to return to work, and had no interest in returning to the film industry. Instead, Hall combined her love and knowledge of performance arts with her eagerness to understand her son and children like him, and wound up creating the Miracle Project.
The first year of Miracle Project worked under a private grant, which she claims she received on “beginner’s luck.” In this grant, Hall promised to have some effect on the lives of at least 100 people. Since then she has reached over 10,000 children, adults, performers and people, of all abilities.
She was, and continues to be, a pioneer in an ever-growing field. She has fabricated what she realizes is a groundbreaking program, which has altered the lives of hundreds. Ryan Berman, Hall’s chief operating officer at the Miracle Project, calls Hall a “phenomenal woman…who sees the strengths in everyone and helps people exceed expectations.”
Hall has replicated the remarkable program in various parts of Los Angeles, and has also been an advocate in the Los Angeles Jewish community, where her program “Miracle Project Judaica” was voted one of the 18 most thriving non-profit Jewish organizations involving people with disabilities in North America.
Hall was also nominated as one of Los Angeles’ 50 most inspiring women. Along with the foundation and her involvement with the Miracle Project and activism in her religious community, Hall has written two successful books about autism. Now I See the Moon, Hall’s memoir about her experience with her son was selected by the United Nations for World Autism Day. She also created the “Seven Keys to Unlocking Autism,” which is a manual for disability educators worldwide, and which Hall uses to train her talented staff at Miracle Project.
A documentary about the Miracle Project was produced in 2007, and Autism: The Musical became a universal sensation, receiving two prestigious Emmy awards. Hall plays a major part in the renowned documentary, which exposes the beauty and power of theatrical and musical therapy to the world. Hall also speaks at panes and conferences about her labors, and has been a guest speaker at the United Nations, Brown University, and the Autism Society of America Conference in July of 2015. Hence, her ideas and approach can spread throughout the nation and world.
Hall is not naïve to the fact that she has been an incredibly influential figure in many lives, and is humbled by the fact that she has been a true catalyst for change in both the autistic community and the neuro-typical community, who may not have been familiar with drama therapy previously.
Harte, the apprehensive autistic child whose life was altered completely by Hall’s nurture and care, recently had a co-starring appearance on the revolutionary television show, Parenthood. Hall’s own son, Neal, is now able to communicate with his peers, teachers, and family, though not verbally, thanks to his mother’s patience and unique approach to therapy.
Hall hopes that in the future, the program can continue to grow as rapidly as it is currently, and continue to have such a profound impact on the differently abled communities. Perhaps, using the performing arts as therapy resources can become the norm for disabled students in the next decade. Meanwhile, Hall plans on continuing to work closely with autistic kids, including her son, in the arts, while sustaining her public appearances, where she shares her incredible work and experiences with the world.