Annie Ready Coffey, a psychologist, registered drama therapist and educator, pictured in her office on Patterson Avenue Aug. 2, 2016 (Photo by Julianne Tripp)
Annie Ready Coffey, a tall woman with curly auburn hair and smiling eyes, slips a blue satin robe embroidered with gold flowers over her clothes. She gives a twirl like a girl showing off a new dress, and then, in a voice just like my favorite grade school teacher’s, she says, “You can’t sit a kid down and just make them talk. It doesn’t work like that. You have to go back to play.”
And play is exactly what Coffey’s young patients do when they visit the snug, colorful world of imagination that doubles as her therapy office. Coffey is a licensed clinical psychologist and a registered drama therapist. She is a woman gifted with the ability to creatively commune with youth. Through her 17-year-old private practice, Arts for Replenishment and Change on Patterson Avenue, she helps kids tackle personal challenges and emotional issues through artistic mediums.
During sessions, the children call Coffey “Annie,” and paint, draw and play their way through difficulties they can’t always put in words.
“The kids come in, and they’re dealing with something. They’re thinking, ‘I’ve got this issue at home, but I can’t say anything about it because it will make Dad mad.’ So, I help them externalize it," she says. "Maybe I hold up a puppet, and the puppet is the one to start talking through the issue,” Coffey says. “Maybe we sit here,” and she points to a pile of pillows heaped with colorful scarves, “and I have them choose a scarf that matches their feeling. We use masks, we dress up. It’s all to help them safely explore real-life stuff though role-taking.”
She’s helped dozens of young people through her drama therapy practice, but her connection to youth extends beyond the therapy office. She’s worked as an educator at several area schools since 2002 and now teaches theater to students in sixth through eighth grades at Sabot at Stony Point School, a private school in Richmond.
“Our school has a huge integration of arts across disciplines; it’s essential to our program,” says Irene Carney, Sabot’s executive director. “Theater is one of the tools we use to help children process and develop their critical thinking.”
With her guidance and the aid of peer-to-peer critique, Coffey’s students create skits that explore weighty topics like religious freedom and immigration.
“Annie’s not just teaching [students] how to project, or about character study, or a particular piece of theater,” Carney says. “She’s teaching them to think, ‘What’s important to me? What would I like to bring to the stage? How will this help me express my story?’ She helps them use the tools of a theater artist to tell their story.”
Coffey’s roles as therapist and teacher are completely separate, yet complement one another.
“My work in school is that of a straight teacher, not a therapist,” she says as she toys with a tiger mask that she encourages kids to try on if they’re feeling angry during a session. “But my therapy experience helps me relate to the children in a way that many teachers, many adults in general, can’t.”
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Sabot at Stony Point eighth graders participate in the annual Civinomix play, co-directed by Dr. Annie Ready Coffey, who teaches theater, and her husband, Bruce Coffey, who teaches history. In this scene, students acted as cave people, in “a consideration of how early people developed laws and social contracts,” says Sabot Executive Director Dr. Irene Carney. (Photo courtesy Sabot at Stony Point School)
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Another student presentation in this year's Civinomix play. (Photo courtesy Sabot at Stony Point School)
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Bruce Coffey stands with his students during the Civinomix presentation, which was themed “Security vs. Liberty: A Delicate Balance.” (Photo courtesy Sabot at Stony Point School)
Coffey’s husband of 25 years, Bruce, teaches history to middle schoolers at Sabot. Every year, the animated husband-and-wife duo co-direct the annual eighth-grade play. Did you read the last words in that line and envision a darkened auditorium full of antsy adolescent playgoers witnessing their bored-looking peers mumble through “Macbeth"? Civinomix, as Bruce dubs their annual mash-up of civics and economics lessons, is anything but.
In the past, Bruce's students would immerse themselves in a big issue for a trimester — health care, gay marriage. They would study and prepare for debates. But for the past two years, they had to demonstrate what they learned by writing material for the play — a show of youthful creativity and critical thought. This year’s theme was “Security vs. Liberty: A Delicate Balance.”
Coffey comes in to help the students rehearse their lines, think about costuming and props, set scenes and show them “how to use body language to express themselves on stage,” Bruce says. “She’s not afraid to embarrass herself, which helps the teenagers not feel embarrassed to really get into it on stage.”
Coffey, a mother of four, believes raising creative kids begins with parents who model creative expression themselves.
“Is there a song that you love, a piece of art that moves you or a film that makes you think deeply? Talk about it with your kids, explore it together,” she says. “And have a creative arts room in your house, where everybody can draw or paint or dress up, whatever they want to do. We love talking in different accents in our family!” she says, laughing.
And don’t forget the fun. “If fun is not a part of the equation, it won’t work. Kids need to have fun, even when — especially when — they’re learning.”