For the past 20 years, Dena Hammerstein's organization has been on a mission to bring interactive theater to its youngest fans.

By Maressa Brown
November 06, 2019

Just as no one would disagree with the Wizard of Oz line that "there's no place like home," it's a universally understood truth that there's no place like a hospital—and that it's basically the last place anyone would want clicking heels to send them. Yet, every day, kids are fighting illness—or even for their lives—beyond a hospital's sliding doors. And that's why Only Make Believe exists.

Here's everything to know about the nonprofit organization, headquartered in New York City and on a mission to give joy and inspiration to as many sick children as possible.

Credit: Only Make Believe

How Only Make Believe Works

They do this by sending professional actors into hospital wards to entertain kids who might be battling chronic illness, terminal diseases or psychologically or physically disabled. Performers come equipped with specially created plays designed for kids' needs and encourage their young audience to participate, so the experience is fully interactive, as well. So far, the organization has 15 unique, originally written scripts in their rotation, according to Playbill.

Credit: Only Make Believe

"We send teams of actors for six consecutive weeks with six different shows so the kids can get to know our actors and our actors get to know and love the kids," explains founder Dena Hammerstein (yes, she's related to Broadway's famous Rodgers and Hammerstein) on the organization's website.

The actors also bring a simple backdrop with a unique, painted trunk that's brimming with costumes and props, all of which are used by the actors and the kids involved in the performance. The trunk, designed by Only Make Believe's volunteers, stays in the hospitals as a gift to be enjoyed by the children well beyond the organization's run at the hospital.

Credit: Only Make Believe

"Collaboration between the actors and the children is the key to OMB’s continued success. The actors bring an OMB trunk filled with costumes and props made by our volunteers to dress up the kids," Hammerstein told Playbill. "Our primary goal is to make each and every child feel special, safe and have fun. OMB allows them to simply be kids playing and having fun. Each child takes an active part in creating a world of fantasy and fun that transcends the boundaries of the hospital walls."

The History of Only Make Believe

Before founding Only Make Believe, Hammerstein and her husband were frequent volunteers with children who were—often chronically—ill, Playbill reports. In the wake of her husband's passing in 1999, Hammerstein was contribute in a different way: by bringing theater to the kids. Back then, the organization first started performing interactive shows at one hospital. Now, OMB brings their whimsy and wonder to over 60 hospitals in New York City and Washington D.C. According to their website, they served 4,326 children in NYC and 1,460 in D.C. last year alone.

Credit: Only Make Believe

OMB's Star Supporters

Over the past two decades, OMB has found various celebrity supporters, including Alan Cumming, Sir Ian McKellen, and casts of Broadway shows like The Lion King, Memphis, and The Book of Mormon.

Credit: Alan Perlman

At their 20th Anniversary Gala event, Make Believe on Broadway, McKellen told what he loves about OMB: "I love the theater, I need the theater, I spent my life in the theater, and I like doing all of that, because of the effect it has on audiences. But some people can't get to the theater, because they're in the hospital, or they're too young to go to the theater anyway. So, the theater comes to them. It's a simple idea, and it brings feeling and it brings joy, as theater should."

McKellen's hope is that the organization only continues to grow, across states and even internationally. No doubt children around the globe would benefit from the inspiration this heartfelt, imaginative organization brings.


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