SARASOTA COUNTY — A simple shout of “O!” earned an enthusiastic applause as speech therapist Carole Goff rounded the room, helping actors improve both their volume and diction at Community Haven for Adults & Children with Disabilities last week.
About 10 participants from Community Haven, plus a few volunteers, eagerly practiced new acting and other techniques as part of a pilot group for a new, yet familiar partnership with the Asolo Repertory Theatre.
The Asolo, which has partnered with Community Haven since 1994 to bring the theater arts to developmentally disabled adults and teenagers, now is expanding its theater arts program, called Kaleidoscope.
Instead of offering a five-week summer intensive program just at Community Haven, it now will work with actors at Easter Seals of Southwest Florida, Bayshore High School and the Oak Park School as well. Furthermore, the program now will be offered year-round.
“We can reach more people with disabilities now,” Asolo Education and Outreach Director Brian Hersh said. “We want to build more bridges to be a stronger part of the community.”
Actors at Community Haven served as a test group for the new format July 12-30. A reception honoring those involved will be held July 30 along with a special performance of the pilot group’s show, “The Art of Soaring.”
Asolo staff members now will use their experiences over the last few weeks to prepare for the launch of the new program and to figure out how to tailor it to each partnering organization and its specific clinical goals.
In mid-September, Asolo reps will begin meeting twice a week with theater groups from those organizations and co-facilitating activities with staff to develop an actor-led program. Their work will culminate in a performance at the Asolo in December.
Although Kaleidoscope traditionally has had an emphasis on musical theater, the acting troupe from each partnering organization will decide what type of theater art it would like to pursue moving forward, Hersh said.
As part of Community Haven’s pilot program, for example, one actor wrote a song and is teaching it to the class. And the group itself wrote a poem that will be incorporated into its performance.
“It’s very organic,” Hersh said. “It could be anything that inspires our actors. They guide us.”
Actors will continue meeting with representatives from the Asolo even after their December stage performance.
Program organizers say theater offers individuals with disabilities great rewards. For example, actors who may have trouble with diction can benefit from vocal warm-ups and breathing techniques. Those who may have trouble moving their hips or feet can use sign language in dance to help express themselves.
Annie Morrison, an Asolo member and one of the founders of the original Kaleidoscope program, said she struggled with dyslexia during school and often was ridiculed because of it.
“Musical theater saved my life,” she said. “It’s a whole-brain experience.”
Consequently, acting helps participants improve in communication skills, articulation, spatial issues and even improves self-esteem, she said.
“It’s a great place to learn problem solving,” Morrison said. “We try to stretch (them) to see (their limitations). To see (a concept) click — it’s better than being in a Broadway show.
“That’s all we care about — helping them to be successful,” she said. “That’s huge for them.”
Anny Barker Schefler, development assistant at Community Haven, agreed the program has had life-changing impacts on participants.
“They get a real sense of themselves (from this program),” Schefler said, adding participants love to give of themselves to the audience. “It may be something nobody ever told them they can do. It gives them a real sense of belonging to something.”
Morrison said she hopes to have more volunteers from the community partner with the Asolo to come in and offer their expertise, whether in dance, music or speech, for the program.
For information about the Asolo, visit www.asolorep.org. For information about Community Haven, visit www.communityhaven.com.
Contact Pam Eubanks at [email protected].