Michael Williams-Stark and I stood on stage at a high school presentation on diversity and acceptance. “What do you see, who do you see when you look at Michael?” I asked the kids.
They answered back, “a biker,” “a hippie,” “a rock musician,” “an old guy!” And Michael responded, “Well, actually, I’m a cartoon character – lots of them in fact” … and our talk was running.
I congratulated myself on inviting Michael as my co-speaker. Teens are a tough audience: and I needed someone who would grab their attention. I knew Michael would. And more importantly, I knew he had a wonderful story to share.
Michael Williams-Stark came to AboutFace eight years ago after seeing a show on the organization. His partner, Abby, suggested that he might find a way to work with AboutFace and help kids dealing with the challenges and struggles he had as a kid with a facial difference. He made himself available to help out at special events and participated in support meetings and talks. But he really, found his place with us when he facilitated a workshop on humour at our first Family Day in Toronto.
Since then, Michael’s workshops have become a regular and popular item. The one-day program has evolved into an eight-week workshop series called making faces. It is collaboration between AboutFace and children’s hospitals. Ultimately,
Michael hopes to offer the program to every AboutFace Chapter in North America.
Together AboutFace and Michael are actively seeking funding that will make this possible. The sponsorship of a corporation or individual, with the courage to take a leadership role in helping kids with a facial difference realize their potential, would bring making faces to Life and make Michael’s dream come true. Understanding Michael will help us under- stand the work he does. . .
At the young age of four, Michael fell in love with film comedy, especially the old short films of Laurel and Hardy and Buster Keaton. “Somewhere in my four year-old head I realized, hey, these are adults and their job is to have fun and make people laugh for a living.” As he got older he was intrigued by the thought of comedy as a career choice. In grade seven, Michael took a more serious interest in the field and from then on began to explore opportunities to learn and teach the art of theatre and comedy. He taught in a community program and majored in theatre at Douglas College in British Columbia. Being the youngest of five, Michael was exposed to many children and always enjoyed entertaining his siblings, nieces and nephews – “whether they wanted it or not!”
As a young man, Michael started his own band and played across Western Canada. In 1984 he moved to Toronto to workshop at Second City lmprov comedy theatre an playhouse, he was trained by Allen Guttman, who has worked with many well-known Canadian comedians, from Mike Myers to Dan Ackroyd and John Candy. Scott Thompson of Kids in the Hall offered Michael and his troupe their spot at the Rivoli theatre when they left and from there his voice character work continued. He’s developed about 50 character voices and has been on many children’s shows including Super Mario Bros, Hammerman, Rupert Bear and Beetlejuice. Currently Michael voices six of the main characters on the hit kids’ show Noddy.
Michael remembers being referred to as “the worst bilateral cleft lip and palate case in BC” at the time of his birth, although he can’t remember winning an award for the honour. He knows that his case was very severe and he spent over three months in hospital following his birth. He often heard people talking about him as he walked by, or when he was out with his family. When people would shout things out to him he thought it must be because he was so popular! He recalls the day his mom lifted him up to a mirror and showed him how he was different from other kids. At the time he just thought of himself as unique; it didn’t bother him and he considered himself a happy little kid.
However, as he got older teasing became more prevalent and being “different” became a hardship. “I remember preparing myself psychologically to get out the door; wondering who’d pick on me today, What would they say? It was an enormous amount of stress for a young child to have to cope with alone.”
At a very early age he became world-weary, more aware than most kids of people’s unkindness and cruelty. To cope he turned to the people and things he cared about most. Michael summarizes his coping strategies as a three part whole: friends, passions and humour. He remains close to childhood friends to this day and credits them with helping him cope with life with a facial difference. He also believes that. his passions overwhelmed his fears, focusing his time and energy on being good at what he loved: music and comedy. They helped him through the rough rimes and motivated him to pursue his dreams.
He has always used humour to help offset negative attention, “I discovered the power of the spoken word and was very quick at off-the-cuff remarks. Being able to respond to teasing with a witty remark usually sent the antagonist running for cover.”
Today, Michael uses humour and the power of the spoken word to help kids with a facial difference discover their own strengths and sense of worth. Through the making faces program kids learn basic “acting” skills that are also “life skills”. While practicing eye contact, voice projection, public speaking, relaxation techniques and creative story- telling, these kids are building important life skills while having fun. For example, although eye contact may seem like a small thing, it can be very difficult for people with a facial difference. “You are inviting them in,” says Michael. “You open yourself up to rejection and ridicule.” However, the reverse can also leave a negative impression. If you can’t make eye contact you send a message of uncertainty, insecurity and discomfort.
Improv gives kids the opportunity to step out of themselves and explore the world through humour. They get role play with words and characters, express feelings and share. They do it for fun, but gain so much more. Improv is also a tool for getting things started. Exercises trigger discussions about differences, teasing and related issues. To ensure the kids have the support they need two health care professionals are present at classes to address these issues as they arise.
making faces is currently based in Toronto. It runs as an eight-week program, with one two- hour class each week. Parents and children complete a questionnaire at the start and end of each workshop to assess the program and monitor changes and attitudes. “Parents tell us they can see the change in the child. Teachers see it too. A child who rarely spoke before attending classes starts asking questions and entering discussions. It’s wonderful to hear,” says Michael.
He has no doubts that the program works, his vision is to bring making faces to all AboutFace Chapters–to host the program wherever it’s requested. To accommodate this vision Michael has tailored the workshops to one and two day sessions as well. “I know they’ll want me back for more once they see the impact we have,” says Michael. He vividly recalls the thank you speech of one little girl at the end of a workshop, “Thank you for making me not nervous when I speak.”
Sometimes the kids don’t realize Michael also has a facial difference. They just see a big, hairy, bearded guy who’s lots of fun, “until I show them a picture of me when I was little,” says Michael. “Then I see the acceptance, their sense that I’m one of them.” At one picture-sharing session, a little girl put her head on Michael’s shoulder and said, “So you understand.” “They know I’ve walked in their shoes and taken the same journey,” says Michael. “If I can achieve my dreams so can they. I want to inspire and nurture those dreams.”
Michael’s advice to the kids in his workshops is simple: you are not like everyone else, but you certainly have the same rights to live, enjoy and participate as anyone else. “The gift of being born with a facial difference is now being able to do this work. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”