Steven had never done anything remotely like this before. 19 and a residential student at The Center for Discovery, Steven was about to audition for Beauty and the Beast, this year’s selection for TCFD’s annual musical theatre production. This would be terrifying for anyone, but more so for Steven who — like most of those at the audition — has autism and faces challenges every day. Getting up on stage was a significant leap outside of his comfort zone. Yet on that morning in early January, Steven was not distracted nor disruptive. He was, in fact, the opposite. Calm and happy.
“He was looking around and soaking up all the excitement,” says Deven Zahorsky, Steven’s teacher. “The students were laughing and encouraging one another. A few of them came over to meet him.” Swept up in the comforting energy of the room, Steven took to the stage of The Michael Ritchie Big Barn – alone – performing his interpretation of a wolf. “I was blown away,” says Deven. So was Conio Loretto, TCFD’s Senior Director of Music Therapy, who is directing the production. “He easily came onstage and surprised us all with his dramatic snarls,” says Conio. Steven is now a member of the ensemble who play villagers as well as the musical’s iconic dancing cups and plates.
“The greatest news I’ve ever heard,” said his dad.
This is not your average production. Steven is one of 29 students and adults who are taking part from across The Center’s programs. The cast, ranging in age from 15 to 56, has a variety of complex conditions, including intellectual disabilities, physical disabilities and autism spectrum disorders. “It’s so gratifying to see our actors and actresses interacting with one another,” says Conio. “It’s clear that our productions have allowed friendships to take wing.”
In order to accommodate every actor and actress, Conio has once again adapted and revised the script to capitalize on the cast’s strengths, and also to challenge them. “Those cast members with verbal skills are given lines to deliver,” he says. “If they can say one or two words, those words become incorporated into the script. Those who can sing, sing. Those who can dance, dance. Those who use facial expressions or body language to communicate do so within the context of our songs and scenes.” It is a remarkable undertaking.
Beauty and the Beast will be the sixth main stage production at The Center. Previous shows have included “A Midsummers Night’s Dream”, “The Lion King” and “Fiddler on the Roof”. Cast members who have participated in some of the other productions are given an opportunity to grow, whether it’s learning more lines or exploring more complex emotions on stage. For the first time this year, Conio says, there were actors vying for the same role, which provided an opportunity to deal with disappointment. (A required lesson for any actor!)
While the goal is to put on a high quality theatrical production, there is much more going on behind the scenes. “We truly believe the process is as important (if not more so) than the final product,” says Conio. “Our cast, while learning to perform the show on stage, are developing important life skills. Social skills. Communication skills. These range from simple things like following directions or waiting for your turn, to profound things like developing a sense of responsibility or the ability to empathize with another.”
Music Therapy is an integral part of the program at The Center and occurs over a variety of formats, ranging from individual therapeutic treatment sessions to participation in more traditional social opportunities, including performance groups like chorus, rock band and drumline.
The cast of Beauty and the Beast is now in twice-weekly rehearsals until the show is staged on May 29th and 30th at The Michael Ritchie Big Barn theatre. Stay tuned for updates: we will be regularly documenting the progress of the cast and the production as they get closer to show time!
For more information about supporting our Integrated Arts programs, please contact Richard Humleker, Vice President of Development, at email@example.com.