Schaumburg theater company helps special needs actors thrive
For four years, Natalie Tittle has played smaller, mostly nonverbal parts in a Schaumburg-based community theater's productions.
The 20-year-old has undiagnosed developmental delays and is happy just being included, said Natalie's mother, Patricia Tittle of Hanover Park.
But seeing her potential, the UPS for Downs Theatre Company offered Natalie her first leading role. She's playing Ariel in its upcoming production of "The Little Mermaid Jr."
"She is so excited," Patricia Tittle said. "Natalie never auditioned to get any kind of major part. She just wanted to be involved in this organization. There's no words to even begin to say how valuable this program is."
UPS for Downs (United Parent Support for Down syndrome) is a nonprofit providing a sense of community, support, education, and opportunities for people with Down syndrome and other disabilities, their families and friends.
Its theater company produces shows in partnership with Chicago-based E.D.G.E of Orion's Constellation Project, giving children and adults with developmental challenges a chance to exhibit their musical and dramatic talents working alongside actors without disabilities.
Natalie and two other Elgin Area School District U-46 students with special needs -- Nico Ficarella and Ryan Hargett -- are part of the 70-member cast performing "The Little Mermaid Jr." Thursday through Saturday, Feb. 27-29, in Schaumburg.
Demand to be part of the company's productions has increased so much, organizers capped the number of participants. The group, now in its 13th year, draws members from across the Northwest suburbs.
Beyond learning choreography and memorizing a script, participants are gaining confidence and developing lifelong relationships, said Sandy Pazerunas of Inverness, an UPS for Downs co-chairwoman and theater program coordinator.
"It gives them a tremendous amount of accomplishment and pride," she said. "We are a disability community who are putting it on, but we really strive to have community participants, friends, and peers. We are trying to expand it to be more of an inclusive experience."
Tonia Ficarella of Bartlett said the UPS for Downs program has helped boost her son Nico's confidence.
Nico, who has autism, and Natalie are part of the transition program at South Elgin High School. His interest sparked after watching Natalie perform, Ficarella said.
Nico played Simba in the group's "Lion King" production four years ago. The 20-year-old will play Flounder next week.
"I never knew he was really interested in theater," Ficarella said. "He tends to be always by himself. He's just like a different person when he is there. He really enjoys it. You just don't know until you go see one of these productions just how amazing these kids are. They are able to shine and show people what they are capable of doing."
Musical director Orion Couling said most of the cast is developmentally challenged. The group has been rehearsing four hours weekly for six months.
The 75-minute version of the show is meant for middle school-level actors.
'The Little Mermaid Jr.'Ticket prices: $16 in advance; $20 at the door.
Performances: 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 27, and Friday, Feb. 28; 1 and 6 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 29, at the Al Larson Prairie Center for the Arts, 201 Schaumburg Court, Schaumburg.
For tickets: ufdlittlemermaid.eventbrite.com.