As a special educator, I was accustomed to writing and presenting plays starring my students, as few opportunities existed for them. That’s why I was so delighted to encounter two Chicago area theater companies that provide individuals with special needs the experience of theater arts: Special Gifts Theatre and Tellin’ Tales Theatre, both nonprofit organizations.
Special Gifts, whose motto is “dream, believe, achieve,” was founded in 2000 by Susan B. Field, a former occupational therapist, with all programs designed to use the stage “as a platform to develop social skills, speech and language skills, and self-confidence.” Special Gifts Theatre believes the stage provides an excellent opportunity for encouraging “problem-solving abilities, strengthening listening, focusing, and attention skills, and improving communication while fostering cooperation” – all the foundations in Special Gifts Theatre’s educational and therapeutic theater programs.
Special Gifts Theatre also engages peer mentors for “a unique creative drama experience.” To its credit, Special Gifts has impacted over 2,800 students and peer mentors ages 6 to 46, and produced 75 performances, and 12 programs in seven different locations. Talk about joy and enrichment! Although individuals may have a variety of special needs – physical, cognitive, learning and social – Special Gifts Theatre focuses on the individual’s abilities not disabilities, and adapts situations to present each actor on stage a showcase for his or her strengths.
Current program sessions for Special Gifts Theatre are “Seussical Junior,” slated for Wilmette and Winnetka beginning Sept. 12 at Loyola Academy, and “Frozen,” slated for Libertyville beginning Sept. 27 at Copeland Manor School.
Ongoing programs include Creativity in Motion for ages 7+ in Winnetka; Musical Theater for ages 10+ in Chicago; “High School Musical Junior” in Palatine; and “Fiddler on the Roof/Creating Outside the Lines” for ages 22 and up in Winnetka.
Tellin’ Tales has a slightly different approach with their performers. There are no peer mentors shadowing; the actors are fully integrated, although they do work with a mentor to write scenes for various productions.
Currently casting is “Six Stories Up: In Discovery,” a production that focuses on inventors, scientists and mathematicians, and will run Nov. 4 to 13 at Filament Theatre in Chicago. In the plot, students are preparing for the science fair, and if someone from their school doesn’t win, the school will close. Fortunately, famous scientists and mathematicians come to their aid as ghosts.
Tellin’ Tales was conceived in 1994. Elmhurst native Tekki Lomnicki, Michael Blackwell and Nancy Neven Shelton produced “When Heck Was a Puppy: The Living Testimonies of Folk Artist Edna Mae Brice.” Based on the personal stories of Southern folk artists, the play mirrored actress Tekki Lomnicki’s own struggles as a person with a disability. The overwhelming, positive audience and critical response illustrated the need for a theater dedicated to the individual.
From 1995 to 1997, with an invitation by Maggie Daley, Tellin’ Tales ran the summer Magic City Theatre Camps for children with and without disabilities that resulted in shows at the Chicago Children’s Museum. Through partnerships with Zebra Crossing Theatre, WBEZ, Gallery 37, Victory Gardens and Chicago’s After School Matters, Tellin’ Tales developed and grew. In 2013-15, their work was celebrated with the Fashion Forward gala, which paired Chicago designers with models with and without disabilities. This year marks the 25th anniversary of this life-changing theater’s productions.
Tellin’ Tales now offers a wide berth of opportunities from community outreach programs to adult solo performances to True Tales Storytelling Workshops. This summer saw a multitude of productions ranging from videos to the live “Connecting the Dots” (readers theater). An upcoming production of “Auditioning for Life” is scheduled for September.
Both these theaters encourage confidence, courage and positive participation. We all know the contagion of experiences and the magic of theater! Both Special Gifts and Tellin’ Tales provide a level playing field; each actor is who they are – an individual – not judged as less than or disabled – and aren’t we all really different individuals? And what joy all performers know when a welcoming audience applauds. I’ve seen it with my own heart.
• Regina Belt-Daniels believes in the power of theater to educate as well as to entertain. Since the first grade, she has been in love with the theater, appearing onstage and backstage in many capacities ranging from performer to director. Currently serving on the theater boards of RCLPC and It’s Showtime, Belt-Daniels will direct “I Hate Hamlet” for the Elgin Theatre Company this fall.
WHAT: Special Gifts Theatre
INFORMATION: 847–564–7704, specialgiftstheatre.org
WHAT: Tellin’ Tales Theatre
INFORMATION: 312-540-1330, tellintales.org