Three years ago, I toyed with the notion that a group of high school students with developmental disabilities could put on a musical. I wondered: Could they learn their parts, memorize stage directions, maintain focus and perfect decorum for 90-minute durations, and follow along in a script while others said their lines? Could they recite lines with emotion and play the roles of people they never met?
I wasn’t sure. But there was only one way to find out.
I walked into a staff meeting that June, wrote the word “Newsies” on the board, announcing to the faculty that required “summer viewing” included watching this movie. Why? Because it was their job to see to it that our students performed the musical by the coming year’s end.
The result was an unforgettable experience in the lives of our students, their families, and the school community. Parents remarked how Sinai had “raised the bar… for educating special needs children” and commented that “it was truly amazing to see how well each [student] interacts with the other. How they look out for other, their respect for each other, their consideration for each other … is beautiful.” Another mother wrote, “It is impossible to assess the deep impact it must have made on each student’s self-image and confidence.”
Students testified that participating in the play helped teach them about staying focused, respecting others, and following directions. Mainstream students, admitting that they attended the play only to support their Sinai friends, acknowledged that they truly enjoyed themselves, and were amazed at what their peers could achieve.
“Newsies” inaugurated a tradition. This annual highlight has become so popular that a Torah Academy of Bergen County graduate, Charlie, expressed interest in watching the video of this year’s performance in “real-time” from his yeshiva dorm in Israel. Sinai student Yoel made the technical arrangements to facilitate his doing so.
Planting seeds, reaping fruits
Students start out in their classrooms, seated at their desks. It is the first week of school. They receive 8.5″x11″ pieces of paper – the precursor to scripts – with names and lines highlighted, tailored for each individual student. They practice reading lines, following with their fingers while a friend reads, and learning to recite their lines at the right time. Weeks later, when they are comfortable with the scripts, they are invited to stand. They are positioned around the classroom. They rehearse in such formation, readying themselves for the transition to a mock auditorium. Basic stage directions are added. Small props are slowly incorporated, one week at a time. Essential costume elements follow.
Come winter break, the students begin asking the big question: “When are we going to Ma’ayanot?” They want to get on stage. They want to make it real. They are not yet ready. “Soon,” we tell them. A few more scenes to polish. Another song to learn. An integrated scene (with students from different acting groups converging) to introduce.
It’s nearly Pesach. We’re ready for the stage.
Scenery is completed and hung. It’s breathtaking. Sound equipment comes out, and everything is tested. Costumes, set, and props are finalized. Teachers are assigned their roles off-stage to coordinate everything from lighting and curtains to script-distribution, costume changes, and mike adjustments.
Practices get longer. Scenes are strung together and rehearsed in succession. Students alternate between their roles on stage and in the audience. Transition time between scenes is reduced. Scripts are now the size of index cards. They are still individually highlighted. Words that students stumble on are replaced. Scripts are modified virtually daily.
Off-stage, students prepare invitations and send e-mails to family and friends, inviting them to the play. Playbills are created with a head-shot and bio for every student. Videographer and photographer are booked. Final equipment checks are performed, as sound and video clips are integrated into the show.
The week before the play, students rehearse daily. The day before (always a Monday, except this year when Tuesday is the first school day of that week), they practice twice. It is a draining day. They get to let loose in between the two practices with a high-energy, all-body activity. It’s the only way to get through the day.
The day of the play is an average day. It is the quiet before the storm. There is only one practice, first thing in the morning. Then, business as usual – a regular day of Chumash and math classes, alongside life-skills instruction ensues. Students follow their regular schedules, and talk of the play is consciously avoided. Until 4:30.
The dismissal bell rings, and the students are practically exploding with excitement. They get an early dinner before heading to Ma’ayanot. They change into costume and teachers engage the students in activities while family and friends file into the theater. Students are not allowed to see their families quite yet. They must wait until after the performance is over.
Lights dim. Curtains open. The audience is silent. The stage belongs to the students. It is their night. They shine in every way.