VOICES: Children’s community theater production reveals value of unique qualities

Over more than 50 years of involvement in community theater, I’ve had many rewarding experiences, but few have been as special as the Springfield Jr. Civic Theatre’s production of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer Jr.” at the John Legend Theater in December.

For this show, Civic Theatre had a strong partnership with Development Disabilities of Clark County, who provided rehearsal space and encouraged the children they serve to try out. We made a commitment to find a role for every young person who wanted to participate, so we ended up with a cast of more than 80 children, ages 4-13.

Some of the children had been in other shows, but many had never been in any kind of show. Others had never been in a full production with lights, sound, makeup, and costumes on a professional stage like that at the Legend Theater. Many of the students were typically developing, and others were not. With this wide disparity of ages, abilities, and experience, there was a huge opportunity to learn more than just stagecraft.

As with any theatrical production, the children learned about vocal projection, gestures, character development, stage right and cheating front. After 10 weeks of dancing, singing and acting, they learned that practice builds proficiency and confidence.

They also gained a new understanding of other children and how to appreciate the unique qualities of each other no matter how different. A student who initially didn’t like crowds and preferred not to be touched became someone who huddled with his castmates in small spaces and hugged them often. A child who struggled with “meltdowns” found it increasingly easier to function because of his joy of being included in the show. Students with mobility issues were helped by castmates. The whole group learned to say “hello” in sign language to a castmate, and all joined in signing the final song of the performance.

The story of Rudolph is filled with examples of individuals being excluded by the larger group. Rudolph doesn’t look like the other reindeer, so he was excluded from pulling Santa’s sleigh. An elf who wants to become a dentist is teased because he didn’t follow the same path as his peers. Misfit toys are exiled because they don’t function like the other toys. But in the end, everyone learns to appreciate the unique qualities of each other and to understand that the whole group benefits when others are included.

With different characters, that could be the story of the cast of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer Jr.” We learned so much more than how to put on a show. We learned to value other people even when they look or act differently from us, how to accommodate individuals who need a little help to participate fully, and that a group of people working together can help everyone to achieve their goals.

Becky Brunsman is a retired kindergarten, music, and college teacher who serves on the board and directs plays for Springfield Civic Theatre.

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