Local theater company makes sure kids with special needs can still perform

Local theater company makes sure kids with special needs can still perform

  • Macy Staff of Evanston, a Special Gifts Theatre actress and member of the Musical Theatre Winnetka program, virtually rehearses her role as Hans for the upcoming Special Gifts Theatre production of "Frozen Jr."

    Macy Staff of Evanston, a Special Gifts Theatre actress and member of the Musical Theatre Winnetka program, virtually rehearses her role as Hans for the upcoming Special Gifts Theatre production of "Frozen Jr." Courtesy of Special Gifts Theatre

  • Students and peer mentors from the Northbrook, Glenview, Glencoe, Evanston, Winnetka and Wilmette areas meet virtually to rehearse for Special Gifts Theatre's upcoming production of "Frozen Jr."

    Students and peer mentors from the Northbrook, Glenview, Glencoe, Evanston, Winnetka and Wilmette areas meet virtually to rehearse for Special Gifts Theatre's upcoming production of "Frozen Jr." Courtesy of Special Gifts Theatre

  • Students and peer mentors meet virtually to rehearse for Special Gifts Theatre's upcoming production of "Frozen Jr."

    Students and peer mentors meet virtually to rehearse for Special Gifts Theatre's upcoming production of "Frozen Jr." Courtesy of Special Gifts Theatre

 
 
Updated 3/8/2021 11:11 AM

As the pandemic continues, COVID-19 impacts many industries, including theater artists.

However, one local theater company's light continues to shine brightly for kids who have a variety of physical, cognitive, learning and social special needs -- and their innovative approach is reaching new audiences.

 

Special Gifts Theatre's mission revolves around the creative adaptation of theater arts to not only showcase individuals' talents on stage, but to also provide a safe and supportive environment that helps students gain confidence, improve self-worth, navigate tricky social situations and cope with challenges.

Although practicing theatrical arts during a pandemic hasn't exactly been a picnic, students and families say it's a positive and helpful experience thanks to a dedicated SGT crew, virtual accommodations and an enthusiastic, "can-do," supportive attitude from the cast.

Special Gifts Theatre Executive Director Elise Larsen couldn't agree more.

"Creative adaptation is at the core of what we do -- even in a pandemic," says Larsen, who, along with the SGT staff, peer mentors and volunteers has creatively adapted rehearsals and performances to showcase students' strengths for more than 20 years.

Larsen acknowledges, however, that delivering a virtual, educational and theatrical experience under COVID constraints requires multiple layers of adjustment, not to mention a lot of improv. But the show must go on.

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"We're accustomed to revising scripts to accommodate verbal ability, adapting actors' entrances and exits according to mobility constraints, and creating costumes and props with a mindfulness toward individuals' needs and preferences," Larsen said.

"Accommodating the pandemic is just another layer of adaptation for our team to work through."

Much to students' and parents' delight, SGT rehearsal schedules stayed intact throughout the pandemic, which provided a sense of normalcy for students at a time that was anything but normal.

"Our daughter's routine was disrupted, so working toward her performance has been a bright highlight during these challenging times," says Magan Banas of Winnetka, whose daughter, Blake, plays Olaf in SGT's upcoming production of "Frozen Jr."

"SGT's virtual programming is the highlight of my daughter's week, so I'm grateful to SGT for making it happen."

"Making it happen" for Blake and her fellow castmates meant modifications every step of the way. For example, cast announcements and costume handouts morphed into rolling, drive-by car parades. Scripts required further adaptations for on-screen (vs. on stage) storytelling. Dance numbers and scene work were rehearsed in Zoom breakout rooms instead of school performing arts theaters.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Outside of the virtual rehearsal room, filming with the constraint of Brady Bunch-style Zoom grids presented the opportunity to add variation to key scenes by editing in close-ups. And, since most students rehearsed in their living or bedrooms against varied backdrops, scenery needed to be communicated in postproduction by overlaying frames that connotate the setting.

In light of COVID, there are even plans to modify the audience experience as well.

"For the first time, our students will watch their on-screen debut at home with their families, so we adapted the audience experience as well to make it extra special for them," says SGT's Program Operations Director Debbie Taus-Barth.

Family and friends from around the country (and world) can now watch the performances. So far, SGT has sold tickets in more than 20 states and eight countries.

Locally, SGT is reaching new audiences, too. The virtual format allows for local classrooms and community groups to take "virtual field trips" to watch the performances, which would normally only be offered on weekends.

In the end, the applause and standing ovations of a live performance will definitely be missed, but the impact may well be the same, if not greater.

"I am very confident that this year's SGT's performances will be different, but I'm just as confident that the whole experience will still be extremely valuable," Larsen said.

Students and parents agree.

"Since the start of the pandemic, isolation has been especially challenging for our daughter," says Danna, whose daughter Macey plays Hans in SGT's upcoming production of "Frozen Jr."

"Macey's place of employment isn't open, social outings are limited or not occurring, her faith classes have been on hold, and college classes are not running. SGT and its innovative programs have filled this gap. They provide a way for Macey, who loves performing, to stay engaged and connected."

For more information about SGT, or to purchase tickets to the March 13-14 productions of "Frozen Jr.," visit specialgiftstheatre.org/tickets-for-upcoming-shows.

The virtual performances will be closed captioned.