The healing arts

Bay Area transplant creates theater and motion therapy programs for disabled

Photo By Tom Angel

Until her gastric bypass surgery in December of 2000, Kari Ann Owen’s morbid obesity and severe sciatica and vertigo had deteriorated to the point of her having to be confined intermittently to a wheelchair.

Now 54 years old, 120 pounds lighter and very mobile (thanks in no small part to Boo Boo Bear, the gigantic, black Newfoundland pooch that steadies her as she makes her way through the News & Review office), Owen has lot to say about her past and her plans for the future and her group, Theatre Engage.

“The purpose of our theater is to produce new plays with social-justice themes and to support community efforts to alleviate the plight of the most vulnerable in our community.”

That’s the explanation Owen, the theater’s artistic director, gives when introducing this newly revived organization (her husband and she moved to Chico from the Bay Area a little over a year ago). The motivation for the theater is rooted in her life of disability, as are the other projects this highly motivated woman is gearing up for.

“My goal is to have my own movement practice for the handicapped,” explained Owen in her almost aristocratic, yet frail voice, “which will integrate therapeutic horseback riding, modern dance and also swimming.”

Speaking with Owen can be a challenge. Having lived a very accomplished, as well as very traumatic life, the diminutive playwright shares a dizzying amount of impressive, as well as depressing, information that is difficult to digest in a single meeting.

She grew up in New York City and chose to head west to further her education after graduating from New York University.

NATURAL THERAPY <br>Kari Ann Owen utilized Centered Riding, a therapeutic riding technique that uses centered breathing to keep the focus on those necessary “first steps.” Owen is pictured with her last horse Jocelyne (above and below), and her Boo Boo Bear (above).

Courtesy Of Gallopin' Gazette

Pursuing a master’s in creative-writing at San Francisco State and eventually a Ph.D. in Religion and Literature from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Owen spent the years writing, mostly. Her plays have been performed around the Bay Area at notable venues such as the Moscone Center and Fort Mason Cultural Center in S.F., and her writing has won awards from the likes of the American Theatre Association’s Playwriting Contest and the Academy of American Poets Prize.

Plus, her husband Silas Warner is a fairly famous computer games designer who founded the Muse Software Company and made a name for himself designing popular home video games such as “Red Storm Rising” and the first-ever talking computer game program, “Castle Wolfenstein.”

Along with all those accomplishments, though, has come an unfortunate counterweight of tragedy. Growing up as an obese child in Brooklyn, Owen suffered abuse at the hands of her mother and eventually at the hands of the wards of the boarding schools she was sent away to.

From starvation to emotional neglect, Owens’ mother did a number on her and her older sister. “My mother decided to control my sister’s weight by not feeding her,” said Owens, “My sister used to go begging to the neighbor. … Sister Margaret used to feed my sister gingerbread—I can still smell that gingerbread.”

The intercession of that compassionate neighbor, Sister Margaret Costello, offered a ray of hope to the two young girls.

“I would go to Sister Costello’s house for companionship and friendship because this was not offered in my own home.”

Despite the resource of a higher education, Owen’s life continued down a painful road as she endured additional torment over her weight, was sexually assaulted and became increasingly ill due to her weight and neurological disorders.

By the time the bubble burst and Owen’s husband could no longer support the family, things had worsened significantly. This bleak situation was compounded when two of the couple’s personal friends were violently murdered and two others committed suicide. With no money and job prospects difficult for the aging computer engineer, and emotional stability at a breaking point for Owen, a change was imperative.

Before leaving the Bay Area, and before her bypass surgery, in an effort to gain some mobility and control in her life, Owen turned to dancing, something she always had a passion for but because of her size was too embarrassed to pursue. After private lessons, she became so enthused that she started leading workshops at a Berkeley dance studio designed for disabled and disadvantaged people. Her efforts led to public performances, a feature in the San Francisco Chronicle and a feeling of empowerment for many heretofore powerless individuals.

Courtesy Of Gallopin' Gazette

“My first dance student in Berkeley was morbidly obese and had neglected her diabetes,” recalled Owen, “We started by doing ballet positions in her chair, and she went from that to floor exercises. She learned to believe in herself as a physical being as well as an emotional and spiritual being.”

Her first-person understanding of the process would seem to make Owen an ideal candidate for administering rehabilitation. “Many people who suffer from morbid obesity are ridiculed to the point where they become numb to their own bodies and numb to any sense of themselves as a valued person.”

With her voice almost disappearing, Owen’s eyes well up as she tries to explain the most critical component to helping the severely overweight individual through rehabilitation. “[When treating an obese person] you will not only be battling the illness of the client, but also their internalized self-hate.”

Soon after her weight-reduction surgery, she followed up on another past passion, horseback riding, which had a tremendous therapeutic impact on her as well. A realization began to crystallize, as the dance, the horses and the swimming (something Owen did to gain strength before the triple hernia surgery she needed after gastric bypass) were all very helpful rehabilitative and empowerment tools, and pursuing the instructional side of all three eventually became her new passion.

Theatre Engage has already put on local productions of Owen’s original works. Crisis, about the Cuban missile crisis, and Hunger and Angels, both about the aforementioned Sister Margaret, were presented in the fall at Moxie’s Cafà to benefit the Catholic Ladies Relief Society’s community food locker. The support, both locally and regionally, has so far been very positive.

“We have found some wonderful people, and not only in Chico. Our director [Evan Nossoff, director of the Sacramento Actors Workshop] and one of our actors are both from Sacramento, and they’ve been willing to make the drive for rehearsals and performances,” said Owen.

Owen’s main focus with Theatre Engage is those “most vulnerable” community members. Writing about, performing benefits for and including in the productions the disabled and disadvantaged is the theater’s three-pronged plan. The crew will be re-showing the Moxie’s plays in Paradise later this month as a benefit for the Center for Tolerance and Non-violence.

With the help of local riding instructor Patty Walters (and her beloved horse Cloud), Owen has been going through the exercises necessary to get her own instructing permit and has only one more test to pass before she pursues her adaptive physical-fitness credentials.

And her husband Silas is using his time between jobs to work on an invention that will expand the range of cell phones.

And that’s not the last of it. With her eye on creating a cheerleading squad to go along with the Sunshine Kids Club’s weekly wheelchair basketball league, “where some of the handicapped kids could do some cheering while the other kids play basketball,” Owen plans on pursuing as many additional little dreams as she can.

“I believe very strongly that disabled children and adults should have access to every activity that the able person does—that there should be no barriers."