Kids with special needs take stage
Belle, played by Lauren Miller, (right) and her mentor during the Special Gifts Theatre production of "Beauty and The Beast" at Skokie School Theater this month. | Joel Lerner~Sun-Times Media
Special Gifts Theatre Beauty and the Beast cast members
Lindsay Cohen, Skokie
Maggie Filipiak, Hawthorne Woods
Jenny Liu, Wilmette
Francesca Maddock, Wilmette
Jack Martin, Lake Forest
Lauren Miller, Evanston
Ali Musielski, Morton Grove
Jared Peterson, Wilmette
Gina Pollock, Wilmette
Andy Sautel, Skokie
Daniel Svachula, Park Ridge
Alex Battistoni, Park Ridge
Madeline Guarraia, Winnetka
Peter Grzeslo, Glenview
Marlena Higgins, North Riverside
Sophie Meyers, Buffalo Grove
John Archabal, Northbrook
Alexa Donato, Mettawa
Alex Gross, Wilmette
Taylor Henderson, Wilmette
Cameron Kavanaugh, Glencoe
Sammie Metz, Highland Park
Hope Michelotti, Libertyville
Sam Petri, Chicago
Tyler Savitz, Glencoe
Naomi Talsky, Skokie
Updated: April 15, 2013 10:18AM
When showtime finally arrived, and the curtain was raised at the Skokie School auditorium Saturday afternoon, 15-year-old Lauren Miller of Evanston wasn’t intimidated.
The crowd was there to see “Beauty and the Beast,” a musical put on by more than 50 children and teens with special needs. As the bright spotlight shone on Miller, a sea of parents and friends sat in the audience anticipating her performance as lead character Belle.
Shadowing Miller on stage, in case she needed help remembering a line or two, 14-year-old Sophie Lieberman is one of almost 100 mentors who volunteer with Special Gifts Theatre, Inc., a North Shore-based program that uses the stage as a platform to teach social skills, enhance speech and language development and increase self-confidence.
Miller was confident about her ability to perform the role, and needed little, if any, help remembering her lines or the words to her solos, which she sang in tune.
“I want to be an actress one day, so I take this seriously,” Miller said before the show. “I just love being on stage and having the spotlight on me.”
The two teens go to different schools and have different friends, but Special Gifts Theatre has helped create a strong bond based upon shared interests in theater, and ithas helped foster a mutual understanding of one another.
“We hang out a lot,” Lieberman said. “Last night we went to see a performance of ‘High School Musical.’”
Special Gifts Theatre is a unique program in that it seeks to benefit both special needs and non-special needs teens by fostering friendships between mentors and students that extend beyond the stage and into their personal lives.
For the past 12 years, Special Gifts has encouraged teens to look past the physical facades of peers affected by conditions like autism, down syndrome and cerebral palsy, and see people for who they are on the inside.
Alex Battistoni, a 16-year-old sophomore at Maine South High School, played the role of Chip Potts in Beauty and the Beast. Battistoni has been paired with his mentor, 17-year-old Danny Svachula, for the past three years.
Svachula joined Special Gifts Theatre because he has two siblings with special needs, and he and Battistoni have developed a deep friendship outside of the program.
“I’m not really his mentor, because we’re buddies,” Martin said. “We hang out a lot — we like going to Portillos.”
The stars of the show are the students, who dress in full costume and work for six months studying the story line and rehearsing before the big performance weekend each March, but the mentors shadow them on stage.
Having the presence of the mentors serves as a support system for the students acting in the play, although most of them executed their roles just fine on their own.
If one of the students did miss a cue or couldn’t remember a line, the mentors would quietly whisper a reminder in their ear to keep the show going.
The program, however, is less focused on the main performance, and is instead centered heavily on increasing confidence in special needs teens and helping them find their place, said Dianne Esbrook, education manager for Special Gifts.
“When parents see their kids on stage for the first time, they’re usually shocked by seeing what they’re capable of,” Esbrook said. “It’s all about increasing social and communication skills while having fun — if someone forgets a line we’ll wait as long as it takes because we focus on making it their moment to shine.”
There’s a waiting list of students hoping to join Special Gifts, which begins each September with classes taught by a staff of 20 teachers and other staff members who have backgrounds as therapists, social workers, teachers and theater coaches.
The teachers who lead the classes and the teens who volunteer as mentors spend one night a week for six months working with the special needs students to help them gain confidence by building social skills and learning to perform a role in front of an audience.
The program is split into two groups of 50 students each, and each group holds separate performances of the same production so that more students have the chance to perform a role.
Jeni Von Tobel, director of programs for Special Gifts, said one-third of the duration of the program is focused on promoting a concept she calls emotional literacy, a skill that has special benefits for autistic students, for example, because those students often have difficulty expressing their feelings in different social situations.
“The classes are aimed at getting the kids to see the big picture — they get to know each other, and learn the story while also learning important character-building skills through their assigned roles in the performance,” Von Tobel said. “For students with autism, it can be hard for them to talk about how they feel, and it’s easier for them to develop an understanding of social awareness when they learn to act out how the character would act in a certain scene.”
The benefits Special Gifts brings to the special needs students also extend to the mentors, Von Tobel said.
“It’s really amazing what it does for the students without special needs,” she said. “We’re raising a new generation of young people who have a better understanding of the needs of people with disabilities.”
For 17-year-old Keri Greenspan of Glencoe, being a mentor gives her early experience for the career path she wants to pursue as a special education teacher.
Working with Special Gifts student 26-year-old Lindsay Cohen of Skokie for the past year, Greenspan said, has helped equip her with firsthand knowledge of what to expect as a future teacher working with special needs students.
Other mentors like volunteering for Special Gifts because of the rewarding feeling they get from helping someone feel good about themselves.
For Highland Park High School student 14-year-old Sarah Elbaum, this is the fourth year she has worked as a mentor for Special Gifts.
Since she started at age 10, Elbaum said she has become close to the student she mentors, 17-year-old Ali Musielski, who played the role of Mrs. Potts, the enchanted teacup in the story.
“We have a close relationship because we really know each other,” Elbaum said. “I like being there to keep her motivated, and I just like being there for her.”