Robin Williams-inspired Art Rx Symposium probes the medicinal qualities of creativity and comedy

By Kristin Marguerite Doidge

Norman Lear said Robin Williams could make him laugh like nobody else
Photo by Rachel Gray Media

Laughter, music, dance, community. These aren’t the first things that come to mind when you’re visiting a loved one at a hospital or receiving treatments in a doctor’s office.

But what if they could be?

The inaugural Art Rx Symposium showcased the power of integrating creativity, compassion and laughter into medical care for patients facing a wide range of diagnoses, and offered a new way of thinking about coping strategies for care providers themselves.

The April 7 event at the University of Southern California — notably the first of its kind — was both inspired by and produced in celebration of the life and work of late actor and comedian Robin Williams.

“He’s known for the creativity, light and laughter he brought to so many,” explained Sydney Siegel, who organized Art Rx with fellow graduate students at USC’s Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work. “There are countless stories of the ways Williams comforted those who were sick with his humor and kindness, whether it be special trips to the pediatric wards of hospitals, or comforting random passersby he saw on the street. … He made such a big effort to make others feel less alone in their pain.”

An audience of more than 400 heard from Williams’ widow, artist Susan Schneider Williams; television producer Norman Lear; UCLA Simms/Mann Institute on Integrative Medicine social worker Lorelei Bonet; Cedars-Sinai internal medicine specialist and musician Dr. Ross Grant; screenwriter, producer and cancer survivor Will Reiser; and dancer Linda Berghoff of Invertigo Dance Theatre’s Dancing Through Parkinson’s program.

Siegel, who studied cinema as an undergraduate, and co-organizer Emily Frumkin were particularly moved by their recent internships serving patients at the Simms/Mann UCLA Institute for Integrative Oncology under Bonet’s guidance, where they witnessed artistic activities having positive impacts on patient health outcomes.

Schneider Williams, a brain disease awareness advocate who serves on the board of the American Brain Foundation, was behind Art Rx from the very beginning. A graphic designer, photographer and painter, she was eager to partner with Siegel to bring the symposium to life.

“Art Rx actively breaks down age-old barriers between science and art by showcasing art programs and scientific discoveries that employ art to generate healing,” she said. “Its mission falls in line with a dream I have had since I first fell in love with art: to prove scientifically the power of art, so that it might be valued as much as science or medicine.”

That value was on full display throughout the symposium, both physically and emotionally, as each artist and clinician shared their experiences.

Before Berghoff’s dancers took the stage, for example, she told her story of being diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2006.

“As you can imagine, I was terrified,” said Berghoff, who years earlier had helped her mother through Parkinson’s. “I knew what the disease could entail. I didn’t want it to be the same for me.”

After taking a dance class for Parkinson’s patients in New York, Berghoff enlisted Laura Karlin, artistic director of Invertigo Dance Theatre in Culver City, to create Dancing Through Parkinson’s in Los Angeles. The program now offers donation-based classes at six L.A.-area locations, including the Electric Lodge in Venice and the Culver-Palms YMCA.

Berghoff emphasized the importance of having professional dancers as instructors because of their knowledge of the human body and how it moves.

“Dance is different than being on a treadmill,” she said. “Dancers really learn strategies to move. And then you have the element of music. Someone in class said, ‘There’s an element of magic in these classes. You come in feeling one way and leave feeling completely different.’… That’s the power of art and medicine.”

During Art Rx, Berghoff and Dancing Through Parkinson’s Associate Director Rachel Whiting choreographed two pieces and performed along with several dancers from the Venice and Culver City classes.

The first dance was a lyrical piece with four pairs as duets. Some dancers were seated, and others stood, but all moved in unison. Then, a jazz piece to “One” from “A Chorus Line.”

There wasn’t a person in the auditorium without a smile on his or her face, including Lear.

“I am so touched — I don’t have the words to talk about it,” he said after taking the stage. The vivacious 95-year-old went on to say that for him, good health and longevity comes down to one thing: laughter. His Beverly Hills-based Act III Productions has just been greenlit for a third season of “One Day At A Time” on Netflix, starring Rita Moreno, among numerous other projects Lear has in the pipeline.

“The only thing I like better than talking about laughter,” he said, “is laughing.”

Lear also talked about the joys of working with the likes of Martha Raye, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, George Gobel, Carroll O’Connor, Sherman Hemsley, Jean Stapleton and Bea Arthur “to name just some of those who have sent tears of laughter down my cheeks,” he said, throughout more than half a century in television and film.

“And then there was Robin Williams,” Lear continued. “Robin Williams could make me laugh in nooks and crannies of my body I would otherwise have never known existed. With Robin came a truth-seeking madness that was new and unique on the planet … and somehow I knew laughter was adding time to my life.”

Art Rx isn’t just a symposium, but a lasting collaboration among USC social work, art and music students that will continue after Siegel and her colleagues graduate this spring. Siegel hopes the program will blaze a trail for arts-driven medical interventions, and says Johns Hopkins and other world-class institutions have reached out to see how they can get involved.

“I’m a really big believer in unlikely partnerships,” she says, “and bringing people together from very different fields and perspectives to make change in areas where there are gaps to be filled.”


Visit artrx.usc.edu to contact the program and learn about future workshops.

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