A play centered on students with disabilities gives “voice to the voiceless”

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Daniel Stevenson is sociable, likes to collect objects and loves a good joke.

“He’ll hold his nose and point at you, like, ‘you smell,'” his mother, Barb Stevenson, said.

In many ways, the 18-year-old is a “typical teenager” who thinks “parents are uncool”, she said. He is also non-verbal, diagnosed with developmental delays and other disorders.

When Daniel’s St. Mary’s Catholic High School drama teacher pitched an idea for a year-end production — a play that would give her son a voice — his mother had no reservations.

“She’s always exciting and thinks outside the box,” Stevenson said of teacher Kathryn Newberry.

The play tells the stories of six students with disabilities – Daniel, Evan, Maria, Ashley, Isiah and Liam – in Newberry’s integrated arts class in the style of verbatim theater, where the script is taken directly from taped interviews.

The play, the school’s first since 2019, is based on a series of interviews with students’ families. Even the title, “A voice in this world”, is a phrase spoken during an interview.

“Verbatim is about giving voice to the voiceless,” Newberry said.

Student productions return to the stage after a two-year hiatus amid COVID-19. Other upcoming performances include ‘The Little Mermaid’ at Glendale High School – the audition-based arts program that played the Broadway musical ‘Cats’ virtually last year – and Sir Allan’s production MacNab from “Annie”.

Newberry said the students worked with Toronto-based verbatim theater company Project: Humanity to create “A Voice In This World.”

The play is structured in scenes about students’ likes and dislikes, the challenges they face, and how the world views them. There is also a scene dedicated to one of the students, Liam, who died in March while the students were rehearsing the play.

“It’s always very emotional when we go through this because these are real emotions,” said Julia Middleton, a Grade 12 student, chosen for Evan and Ashley’s mothers. “We didn’t invent anything. It happened.”

Middleton, who plans to study acting next year, said the play challenged her as an actress.

“I have to use my acting skills to put myself out there and say, ‘Yeah, I haven’t had those experiences, but how can I relate to them,'” she said.

Middleton said the experience challenged her in other ways as well.

“I always thought I was a very open and tolerant person, but I realized that I had already taken lessons with these students and never even made… an effort to say hello” , she said.

Newberry said the idea for the play crystallized when she realized the divide between students in her senior arts class had widened during the pandemic.

“My students would be on one side (of the stage) and my students with special needs would be physically separated on the other side,” Newberry said of her class.

She sought to close the gap, using games that played to the strengths of the students in her class. Maria, who is autistic, led the class in a “follow the leader” game, but with dancing. Daniel performed an impromptu comedy in a rainbow clown wig and sunglasses, causing the whole class to burst into laughter.

“There’s been a complete turnaround,” she said. “There is now a real friendship that did not exist before.”

Performances are scheduled from May 30 to June 2. Tickets are available for $10 at the door and by emailing [email protected]

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