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Building an Inviting Atmosphere Through Inclusive Live Theatre: From “I Can’t” to “We Will”
By Brad Walkenhorst, PhD

“You want to do what?”   “Who is going to be in it?”  “How can my students act? ““They are non-verbal” “They are non-mobile.” “They can’t behave in class can’t read, can’t sit still” “They won’t understand.”   “I don’t have the staff.”   “We don’t have the time, with academics and state tests.”   “They already miss class for OT, PT, SLP, Social Work, Algebra tutoring, Work Skills, PBIS…”  “No.”  No!”   “NO!!!” “It can’t be done, no way, no how.”

This is a true story of how a single vision of inclusion and a willingness by many to buy into that vision can take teachers from “I can’t” to “We will.”

Let’s begin by setting the scene.  Northview High School is located in North St. Louis County, Mo.  It is a Separate Public Day School. That is to say that every student at the school is placed there through the IEP process.  Our school encompasses the entire range of exceptionalities as identified by IDEA.

Our teachers’ work primarily focuses on one of five core areas: Support and Instruction; Emotional Disturbance, Autism, Intellectual Disabilities, Multiple Handicapped, and Vocational Training.  While we teachers may spend the majority of our time working with students in a specific core area, the lines of demarcation between departments is not always clear.. Likewise, the  ‘department’ in which a student is placed is related to the child’s individual needs and not necessarily the educational diagnosis listed on their IEP.

As a school where every student has an IEP, we are constantly balancing academic demands, functional and behavioral skills, and IEP goals.  The scheduling of related service providers at the beginning of the year, determining push in or pull out times, identifying activities, and setting goals consumes a great deal of energy, to say the least.  Just because every student has an IEP does not mean that this was not an inclusive endeavor.  Many of these students and staff had never worked closely together before.  We had to build a community of respect and trust with the staff as well as the students.  The building of rapport, utilizing common language, as well as reach a consensus on goals and visions, was essential in this process.

What if…. We could look at strengths, abilities, IEP goals, and areas of concern and address them through a collaborative effort.  Live theatre, perhaps.  One spot where everyone has a role, everyone has a purpose, and everyone is working on all those “things” that need to be addressed from state standards and the IEP process.

This paper will take you on a journey of how live theatre can make inclusion a reality and help to shape teachers’ minds on the limitless possibilities of the students they teach. Specifically, through coordination, collaboration and shared vision, any student can play any role with the help of a supportive staff and technology.

The vision was simple: to produce a full-length play that will be inclusive for every student at the school who chooses to participate in the play.  We held auditions over 3 consecutive days.  The auditions were held during the school day to ensure that students were able to participate. For the first production, 35 students auditioned for parts.  Of those 35 students, 7  used a wheelchair, 4 used a walker/stander, 9 students utilized some form of augmentative communication device, 3 students needed a sign language  interpreter),  8 students were identified with emotional disturbance. More than half could not read, with only two students reading at grade level.

Live Theatre in its essence brings the printed word to life, making it rise out of the page and into a world created in the moment,--the readers’ interpretation of the playwright’s written words.  Through dialog and stage directions, reading a play asks the readers to examine word structure, analyze grammar and word choice, interpret stage directions, and synthesize all of this into a meaningful story.  This means that it is essential that the students be able to read.  That was the first hurdle that we had to face.  If we only worked with students who read well enough, we were excluding a substantially large part of our student body.  Therefore, it was imperative that we find ways for students to utilize the script, auditions, and rehearsals to develop their reading skills. 

To facilitate this as teachers (and directors) we had to be purposeful at all stages--from the selection of the play, through auditions, rehearsals, and dress rehearsal to performance and post-performance reflection.  Each step in the process allowed us the opportunity to help students learn how to interact with the written word to construct meaning.  We were fortunate enough to have the abilities to make adjustments to the script as necessary.  What we discovered is that through our staff’s close reading of the script and oral recitation of the script, our students could and did begin to pick up the rhythm and cadence of the play.  This contributed greatly to engaging all students as they began to build fluency and maintain the rhythm as lines bounded back and forth between actors. 

Seasoned actors and actresses struggle with the nuances of the script.  So when our students struggle it is to be expected. It is through this communal struggle that students bond, grow, and thrive.  Live theatre asks students to have an emotional and physical connection to the text.  Live theatre asks all that are involved to complete close reading of the text, analyzing and dissecting every word, phrase, direction and emotion to determine author’s meaning, author’s intent, character motivation, foreshadowing, plot points, etc. 

At auditions we looked the students’ ability to read the lines, with or without assistance; whether they were able to project vocally, and whether they showed body awareness, proprioception, and ability to be in other’s space.  We also took notes on what accommodations would be needed for the student to participate.  This was a team effort. The teacher, related service provider(s) and I sat down and went through each student’s needs.  The essential question that was put on the table at every one of these meetings was what was required for the student be successful in this role. We created a spreadsheet to track student strengths, abilities, and needs.  Auditions were not just limited to ‘official’ audition times. Staff observed throughout the day how students interacted with each other. We made every attempt was made to cast the roles in a way that paired students who were able to speak and read lines (maybe with accommodations) with  students who were non-verbal, utilized an augmentative communication device, or needed more intense assistance.

Students were able to voice their preferences on what roles they would like.  We utilized this time to conduct mini-character studies with the students, identifying key attributes of the character and comparing these to the students’ self-identified character attributes.  The plays that we chose to produce were adaptations of familiar stories (Romeo & Juliet, Fairy Tales, & A Christmas Carol), so students had a familiarity with the plot and characters.  The stories were adapted for a variety of reading levels, which allowed students to acquire a greater sense of character development. Students read the play, read or heard several adaptations of the story, watched a variety of live and Hollywood performances of the story, and created their own summary of the plot and theme.   Each student was able to do this at his or her own level through differentiation and scaffolding.  Some students put pictures in order, others created simple books, while others wrote essays on the plot.  The point was not on how the information was conveyed, but that the students demonstrated an understanding of the story.

Once the play was initially cast,) we moved directly into rehearsals.  The cast was the embodiment of a living, evolving entity as students joined and left throughout production  We had 8 weeks from audition to opening curtain.  Paraprofessionals became an integral part of the rehearsals:  They were initially in charge of the augmentative communication devices, helped students track their lines, and highlighted, numbered, and modified text layout. Many times, they were working with two or more students who needed varying degrees of support and encouragement.  Paraprofessionals added pictures to the text to help facilitate reading.  They enlarged print and printed scripts out on flip cards. 

The paraprofessionals made sure the scripts were accessible to each student based on each student’s level.  This was work that was normally out of their realm of responsibility.  Inviting paraprofessionals to contribute in a meaningful and relevant way helped them to develop a strong connection to the production.  Their dedication and energy were contagious and spread through to the rest of the staff and especially the students.

 As we worked through the rehearsal process, the students themselves came up with ways to help each other.  Sometimes it was a subtle cue, other times it was posting the lines on back of a prop.  The students learned not only patience and tolerance, but a bit about how each person processes language and communicates differently.  One actress who played the role of Benvolio, read her lines, sometimes a little too literally.  A particular line ended with an exclamation mark, and she yelled it every time.  This is why the exclamation point is there in the first place.  After delivering the line, she would then start crying.  It was only after some time and peer discussion that we realized that she was crying because she yelled, and she was not supposed to yell in school, but talk in an inside voice.  The paraprofessional went back through the student’s adapted script and removed the exclamation points from all of her and problem was solved. 

Tolerance and generosity were grown naturally, as students shared roles, such as the double casting of Juliet, one star utilizing an augmentative communication device, and one memorizing lines. These two developed such a bond that it was almost as if they became one entity on stage. The sharing of lines not only helped lighten the load on one student, but allowed the other student to interact in a natural flow of conversation utilizing her augmentative communication device.  She also became the one to keep the scenes on track, as she wanted to ensure that her lines were delivered correctly.  The lines were programmed in her device utilizing a numbering system as well as the final two words of the prior line so she could keep on track.

Behavior was an issue, and there were times when one or more of the cast was not at school due to behavioral issues. Many times the students took the initiative to discuss behavior and encourage fellow cast members to be responsible and be at school to rehearse.  This included making phone calls home to ask them to come to school and reminders to maintain behavior throughout the day so that they could be at rehearsal.  Students responded very positively to these phone calls and reminders from their peers.

Other students engaged through procuring or building props.  One class took charge of props. This included creatively repurposing objects, such as turning a file folder box into a laptop computer.  Students were responsible for not only for the design and build process, they learned how to think creatively to create props and moved from concrete representations to abstract models.  This class also had the job of ensuring that the props were placed in the correct spot every rehearsal.  This was a large job, as the set had to be taken down and stored every day since it was set up in the gymnasium.

 As rehearsals continued, students worked through the difficult tactile sensations caused by costumes and wigs. Many of our actors had sensory needs or sensory aversions.  What seemed like a simple task of putting on a wig or wearing a coat was a challenge for many students.  We overcame this by allowing students to wear their costumes, or part of costume, for increasing amounts of time throughout the school day. Besides providing the opportunity to work through the sensory experience, it also created a continual visual reminder of the play and the end goal.  Students became more comfortable interacting with each other and helping each other out, including putting on and taking off of costumes, wigs and prosthetics. The cast took on the responsibility to ensure that each person was where they needed to be and were prepared.  The development of empathy and respect for each person as an individual emerged naturally. 

While staff held many backstage discussions regarding expectation, it was the students who showed the initiative to teach each other how to sit quietly and patiently in the wings for their parts.  Students utilizing augmentative communication devices rehearsed their lines backstage alongside their peers who used their voices to communicate.  Whisper voices have a whole new meaning when it comes to augmentative communication devices.  The volume levels had to be adjusted.  This suggestion came from the students themselves.  Volume was quieter for backstage and louder for on-stage The students were in charge of making sure that the actors were on the right side of the stage and that those that utilized wheelchairs were able to access the stage when their parts came up.

One student really wanted to be in the production, but rehearsal times interfered with his school ‘work’ job of vacuuming.  He did not want to give up the job at all.  After much debate, we gave him a new outfit—he was “Prince Cleaning” and he was able to utilize the vacuum cleaner as a prop.  When he was not needed on set, he did his job and vacuumed the entrance mats to the school.  The simple task of analyzing the ‘problem’ and looking for solutions created an environment of inclusion.

Live theatre provides ample avenues to engage students in their own learning.  Fluency, decoding, comprehension, expressive and receptive language, and socioemotional skills are just the ruffle of the curtain that can be taught through live theatre.  The school’s dedication to creating an inviting environment and ensuring that each child has what they need to succeed is critical.  However, it is through the process that students learn. Having a common goal is crucial--the real learning happens in the day-to-day activities of rehearsal and pre-production.  The smiles and joy on the parents’ faces during and after performance are the encore. o

Brad Walkenhorst is currently an Assistant Professor at MacMurray College in Jacksonville, Illinois.  Prior to teaching pre-service teachers he worked as a special educator for Special School District of St. Louis County, Missouri.  Brad began the theatre program at Northview School.  He was director for two full scale productions, "Seussification of Romeo and Juliet, and CSI- Fairy Tale Unit" as well as director for "The Struggles." Brad's previous body of work include founder and CEO for WHM Services, Inc., a not-for-profit arts group for teens in the North St. Louis County Area, as well as a muralist and folk artist.  Brad also started a theatre program at Epworth Children's home where he directed two plays.    Brad initiated Northview's participation in the national Poetry Out Loud Program.  Brad has published articles on working with troubled youth and youth with exceptionalities.

The theatre program continues on at Northview. In December, 2017, they produced a full-length play of “The Christmas Carol” under the co-direction of Patricia Billeau, Barb Raney, and Leon Cluck.

Brad Walkenhorst