Flourish in the Footlights brings arts to individuals with special needs

July 8, 2011 § 2 Comments

By Hilary Nelson

Imagine a teenage boy in a wheelchair who can’t join the other kids playing sports, or a young woman with Down syndrome who doesn’t have the confidence to interact with her peers. For individuals with disabilities, their options for fun and educational opportunities are limited. Metropolis Performing Arts Centre’s Flourish in the Footlights helps them to show off their talent and work as a team. It is the most unique program of its kind in the country, making the arts accessible to artists with disabilities including Down syndrome, Autism, nonverbal and wheelchair-bound individuals.

In addition to learning acting skills, participants in the program gain self-confidence and build social skills and communication techniques they can use daily in all aspects of their lives. Flourish in the Footlights, which concluded its eighth year with a performance of Jack and the Beanstalk on April 25, is annually presented in partnership with Arlington Pediatric Therapy. As a result of the success of Flourish in the Footlights, Metropolis has developed new, similar programs with Clearbrook and Northwest Special Recreation Association.

While participating in this year-long program, students who range in age from 13 to 40 develop and evolve throughout their experience. A student will often enter the program shy and hesitant and may not be willing to fully participate in class. But through working together on ensemble acting exercises and supporting each other, they gain a tremendous amount of confidence and are eventually the first to volunteer for an exercise.

Part of the program includes the ensemble of actors writing their own script for the show. First, the actors improvise the show, which the teaching instructors videotape, and then use the actor’s lines to develop the script word-for-word. The ensemble’s adaptation of Jack and the Beanstalk retained the integrity of the plot, but also added some fun and creative new characters and plot twists. The show also included three original songs written by cast member Eric Brandt, as well as three ensemble musical numbers complete with choreography.

And thanks to the generous sponsorship by the Palatine-based law firm of Lavelle Law, Ltd., the production enjoyed a set designer for the first time, in addition to a costume designer – all of which made for an amazing production. Attorney Kerry Lavelle said, “As a local business with a commitment to contributing to the communities we serve, Lavelle Law, Ltd is humbled to provide financial support for programs like Flourish in the Footlights. The opportunities that this program provides to those with special needs are incredible and this type of offering is something that means a great deal to me personally, and our firm as a whole. We are so pleased to have formed this partnership with Metropolis and to support the outstanding work being done for these wonderful artists.”

For director Megan Willhite, who has been with the program for six years, being a part of the students’ personal growth is what keeps her coming back to the program. “It is very rewarding to witness the change in our students from year-to-year,” she said. “They are able to further create connections and develop their relationships. They all care about each other and want to help each other, so we really have been able to create an ensemble. And it makes for a great learning environment because it’s safe and comfortable enough that I can challenge them and make them take risks so they will continue to grow.”

There are many success stories as a result of Flourish. Kevin Buchberger has been in every Flourish show, and eight years ago, he struggled with his confidence of performing in front of people. This year, Kevin played the lead in Jack and the Beanstalk and owned the stage with his 100-plus lines. And Aimee Breckenridge, who used to get consumed with stage fright and self-doubt, gave a hilarious and effortless performance as Alexandra the Giantess, a part that primarily consisted of ad-libbing with the Giant.

Mary Beth Mayer is a special educator at Arlington Pediatric Therapy, and is also one of the assistant directors of Flourish in the Footlights. She has been with the program since it started. Mayer describes the program as “life changing.” “This program is important for the participants on so many levels. It enables them to explore the theatre world and to realize that they, too, can shine on stage and be in the spotlight,” she said. “For many of the participants, it is the opportunity to discover all sorts of hidden talents…talents that are ‘pulled out’ week after week or year-after-year. It is so awesome to see them blossom into confident young actors! Flourish also gives them the opportunity to work as an ensemble and to learn about true respect for their peers and the directors.”

Sandy Ricketts, whose teenage daughter Katherine participates in the program, says, “Metropolis is a valuable learning experience for Katherine. Since Katherine attends a school of all special education students, she lives in a bit of a protective bubble. With the Footlights program, she is challenged in ways she is not challenged elsewhere, and has to leave her comfort zone.”

The Ricketts family came to the Flourish in the Footlights program at the recommendation of Katherine’s speech therapist at Arlington Pediatric Therapy. They have now been involved with the program for three years and plan to continue their involvement next year. “We are very happy with Katherine’s progress these three years and we are thrilled to have this opportunity for her,” Sandy said. “It’s a great extracurricular activity, and there aren’t many opportunities for disabled young adults to engage in such activities.”

For the Brandt family, Steve and Nancy and their son Eric, Flourish has been an all-around positive experience. “For all of us, we have developed new and lasting friendships. And Eric has developed a better appreciation for the discipline required when he makes a long term (7-8 month) commitment,” the family said. “The team has evolved the program to be able to create and produce a show that is not only enjoyable for the kids but involves and entertains the audience.”

“I believe it changes the way many people might view individuals with disabilities,” said Mayer. “And this is something that both Arlington Pediatric Therapy and Metropolis can be quite proud of….truly making a difference!”

Flourish participants have gone on to take classes at Second City and perform with other performing arts organizations, but the majority of the ensemble comes back year-after-year because the program is also a built-in support system. Willhite reflected on the importance of that. “Students know they will be welcomed with open arms, but will also be challenged to push themselves and grow as individuals,” she said. “Parents also know they will be returning to a loving community of other parents in similar circumstances and that they will get plenty of emotional support.”


§ 2 Responses to Flourish in the Footlights brings arts to individuals with special needs

  • JFS in IL says:

    How does a person apply to try out for or to join this group? My 20-year-old son with autism would enjoy this – his teacher Colleen Brady at South Elgin High School told me about it (I believe a couple of her other students maybe in this group already).

    • Hi JFS.
      You can contact our Education Office at 847.577.5982 x221. While the program is complete for this year, it will start up again in the fall and we’re always excited to have new actors join Flourish in the Footlights!

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