Many people are surprised to learn that Hugs and Kisses, Virginia’s principle child sexual abuse prevention program, is implemented by Theatre IV, the touring arm of Richmond-based Virginia Repertory Theatre.
But Theatre IV, the nonprofit company that produces this groundbreaking and award-winning musical for children, is no ordinary troupe. Founded in 1975 by Bruce Miller and Phil Whiteway, Theatre IV lives by the mission that gave the company its name: to seek national caliber excellence in four areas, namely the arts, education, children’s health, and community leadership.
Miller, co-creator of Hugs and Kisses, remembers well the day Ann Childress, a child protective service worker from the Virginia Department of Social Services, first walked into his life. “She visited our office in 1981 and asked if we had ever considered producing a play about child sexual abuse. In 1981, virtually no one discussed this subject with adults, much less with children. I wondered if Ann was a little nuts.”
Childress spoke persuasively about the need to educate children about this important safety area, and to provide parents with talking points they could use to discuss this sensitive subject within their families. “She argued that we give our children safety lessons regarding fire, traffic, and swimming,” Miller recalled, “why can’t we protect them from child molestation?”
Miller hired University of Richmond law student Terry Bliss, now an attorney and theater director in Onancock, Virginia, to research the subject. The two assembled a statewide team of Virginia professionals who were connected professionally to the issue. After 18 months of research, Miller and Bliss, in partnership with Virginia composer Richard Giersch, created Hugs and Kisses. It was the first children’s theater play in history to tell the story of a little girl who was living through sexual victimization.
“In 1983, no school in Virginia would even accept a free performance about this subject matter,” Miller remembers so, in partnership with Prevent Child Abuse Virginia, Theatre IV presented seven showcase performances statewide.In the middle of that showcase tour, the infamous McMartin case, which detailed abusive behaviors at a childcare facility, broke in California. For the first time, child sexual abuse was on the cover of Time and Newsweek. Within a matter of days, the first school year of performances for Hugs and Kisses was entirely booked.
Since 1983 Hugs and Kisses has been performed in every county of the Commonwealth and reaches thousands of students in over 120 schools annually. Anecdotal evidence suggests that over 14,000 Virginia children have found the help they need to deal with ongoing sexual abuse as a result of Hugs and Kisses and related dialogue.
Miller is proud of the success of the initiative as both a preventative program and an avenue for early intervention. “Years ago we started a theatre arts organization not for art’s sake but to use art to impact the community,” says Miller. “I think we have done just that.”