When I was trying to brainstorm ideas to combine my love for children with special needs and musical theatre, I had initially thought to spend three weeks in Costa Rica developing a program there. But I ultimately realized I did not have to travel abroad to implement such a program when there was so much I could do in my own community. I did some research on theatres that involved children with special needs and disabilities and ultimately found just a few around the country. So going in pretty clueless on what to expect and how to go about it, I jumped into the best experience I have ever had.
When this idea hit me, I immediately called my music teacher who had got me hooked back in the first grade. I told her my idea and she said “Meet you at Starbucks tomorrow.” And that next night, we sat at Starbucks for hours and hours trying to figure out all of the logistics and how to ensure this program would happen. I got all of her insight and she served as my mentor throughout the whole process.
My two first steps were to find a place to rehearse and to get the rights for a show. I called every single place in my town and the surrounding towns: churches, schools, public centers. One church wanted to charge me $1,500 a month, another church required me to have liability insurance, and all schools charged a massive fee, as well as a janitor fee, for a minimum of four hours. I called countless insurance companies and at least ten venues before finally finding a small local school to rehearse at. SMEC graciously donated their building for us to use. My next step was acquiring the rights to a show, which I discovered is very costly. I started the process primarily online and via email until the Musical Theatre International representative refused to respond to my emails because I was a seventeen year old girl and he doubted my ability to pull off this project. This led to hours and hours of phone calls with the company until I was finally granted the rights (for nearly $800). So now that I had the materials and the location, I began to recruit kids.
I had hoped to advertise the production through local schools but, unfortunately, not many schools would send out my notice. On my fist "sign up" day, I had four kids. How was I ever supposed to do a show with just four kids?
On my first “sign up” day, I had four kids. How was I ever supposed to do a show with just four kids?So for the next few weeks, I sent out countless emails to parents, teachers, and resource centers and word spread really quickly and I ended up with sixteen kids. I also turned to Facebook to help spread the word. I put together the cast list and then our rehearsals began. At our first session, we all read through the script as a cast. I was a little nervous leaving that night as the read through took a lot longer than the script calls for. The actors had a wide range of disabilities: some nonverbal, some very limited physically, and others illiterate. But the chance to let these kids shine and be confident was worth every challenge I would have to face.
After working an 8-5 shift at the Country Club, I would rush to rehearsal and keep plugging through the show. I spent the next ten weeks teaching dances, reviewing the songs, and giving these child actors directions on where to stand. Sessions were exhausting, especially the full cast rehearsals. I dealt with many tears, inattention, and some overly energetic children. I learned how to balance patience and authority.
I found ways to make accommodations to ensure every child had their moment to shine.But piece-by-piece, everything began to come together. The kids were learning their lines, the dances were full of smiles and dramatic moves, and the songs were sung with cheer and volume. I immediately recognized the amount of time and work the actors put into their roles at home. They are some of the most hard working and determined kids I have ever worked with. Their parents are also some of the most incredibly kind and patient people I know. I was so fortunate to receive immense support and trust from them. I found ways to make accommodations to ensure every child had their moment to shine.
One girl who was unable to read had a mentor on stage to feed her the lines to repeat and another held a clipboard containing her lines. One dad even held huge cue cards while the son was able to walk across the stage and read them. (It was truly a breathtaking moment) In the real theater world, everyone is cutthroat and wants the solos and lead roles for themselves.
My favorite part of the process was not only the relationships I got to form with each actor individually, but more so the relationship and trust we built as a cast.In this production every actor helped and encouraged one another, and they never got frustrated if someone else messed up. My favorite part of the process was not only the relationships I got to form with each actor individually, but more so the relationship and trust we built as a cast. The cast was composed of a wide range of ages, 5-18 and a wide range of disabilities and severity. While I was strongly advised against allowing such a broad age range, I found that all of the older kids really took on a leadership role with the younger ones, an opportunity they do not always have.
Our oldest actor, Jacob Almedia, starred as Daddy Warbucks and was absolutely incredible. He has a stunning voice and was able to improvise so well when a fellow actor missed a line or forgot it. He was able to think quick and move the show along. But he was so patient and supportive to all of the cast and was always seen giving loads of his theater advice. When Ms. Hannigan had a breakdown during dress rehearsal during her solo song “Little Girls,” Jacob grabbed a scarf from off stage and came on belting the song. This not only kept the show moving but gave Ms. Hannigan a laugh and the confidence she needed to get back up there.
We had two different Annie’s, one for each night, and one was a twelve year old with autism and she really struggled with the thought of people being angry with her and with changes. This meant that there were a lot of breakdowns and tears. When she messed up a line, was late for a move, or wasn’t acknowledged fully, she got really upset. I had to constantly remind her that we weren’t mad and that it was okay to mess up. But after a few weeks of rehearsals, she became so much more confident and rarely shed a single tear.
But after a few weeks of rehearsals, she became so much more confident and rarely shed a single tear. I found that repetition and familiarity helped nearly every child so the more and more we rehearsed, the better and better the show became. The whole process was about embracing the unpredictable and the uncontrollable. I was not concerned about having a “perfect” performance, because a perfect performance was really just one where everyone had fun, was confident, and felt like a star.
The week of the show called for very long rehearsals. We would rehearse from 5-8 which is long for anyone, but especially for these children. It meant a lot of adjusting, waiting, and stopping and starting. Not to mention that the non-airconditioned room was 82 degrees! The actors were so used to practicing in the same space the past few months, that a total new venue, in addition to costumes, microphones, set pieces, and props, meant a lot of confusion and stress. But the kids handled the change so well, which was so great to see since most children on the spectrum really struggle with adapting. I will say it one hundred times that the transformations in each child were so drastic.
On opening night, one of the actors says to me, “Do you have special needs?”“No, I do not,” I replied. “Well then why would you want to help losers like us? I hate having autism."On opening night, one of the actors says to me, “Do you have special needs?”
“No, I do not,” I replied.
“Well then why would you want to help losers like us? I hate having autism.”
Holding in tears, I stepped back and saw exactly what I had accomplished. Not only did the show go perfectly and had the whole audience in tears (nearly 400 people both shows), but the kids went up there and were united and proud. Some of the kids did not want to walk through the door that first day and now they were on stage! One brother stated his sister was talking more than he has ever seen, one father claimed it was the first time his extremely severe son ever had the opportunity to be apart of something bigger, and another parent mentioned the best part was that all of the kids could be themselves in a safe and loving environment.
At our cast party a few weeks after the show, I was bombarded with “What show are we doing next year?” One boy, who I never really thought enjoyed it much, even brought me a list of suggestions! I am still in awe over the hard work and dedication put in by each actor and their parents. Whenever one of the parents posts anything about their child on Facebook, I see nearly all of the other parents commenting on the post. I am so happy and grateful to have created such a tight-knit community of incredible kids and parents.
While we did not charge admission to the show, we were able to raise nearly $1,800 in donations. I am currently in the process of communicating with local non-profit organizations and looking for other grants to continue this incredible group. Thank you, Mr. and Mrs. Haney for the funding of my project. It not only touched the lives of me and all of these children, but all of their friends, families, and my entire community!