The Play's the Thing: Disabilities and the Arts

For a group of kids, including those who have autism and other disabilities, a unique theater program is setting the stage for acceptance, understanding, and friendship.
The Play?s the Thing: Disabilities and the Arts

Lucy Schaeffer

It's a little after 5 P.M. on a sunny Monday afternoon and the Bluett Theatre at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia is swarming with 5- to 8-year-olds. The 36 kids are shrieking, running around the aisles, and bouncing up and down on the theater seats. "Okay, guys, we're singing the final number," shouts their director, Jenny Jacobs, over the din. She gives the nod to the orchestra, and as soon as the first chord is struck, the kids freeze, settle in their seats, and start singing a song from the musical Snoopy: "If just one person believes in you..."

An hour later, Jacobs and Betsy Wolf Regn, a former English teacher serving as stage manager, have run through ten of the 17 show tunes that make up Reviewsical, the musical review the children will perform for a 400-person audience at 7 P.M. Some of the kids look slightly stunned as they peer out at the empty theater. But when they reach the chorus of a Sound of Music medley, they perk right up, popping out like cuckoo-clock birds and yodeling right on cue.

Welcome to Wolf Performing Arts Center (PAC), a nonprofit children's community theater program founded in 2005 by Regn's mom, Bobbi Wolf, a retired middle-school teacher. It's a program known throughout the Philadelphia area for its professional-level productions that showcase the talents of its many gifted young stars. But look a little closer and you realize that this is no ordinary theater program. When the cast gathers in the theater's green room to play warm-up games before showtime, an 8-year-old with autism hangs back, mesmerized by the blue plastic beads on her string bracelet -- a token that Jacobs has distributed to each child as a reward for their hard work through nine months of rehearsals. "Come on, we can't start the super-secret warm-up game without you!" Regn tells her, gently nudging her toward the sofa. Two 5-year-old boys scoot over to make room for her, and the girl breaks into a big smile. Then Regn and Jacobs turn their attention to calming the rest of the group, some of whom have ADHD and other behavioral problems and are rolling themselves impatiently off the back of the couch.

The teachers and parent volunteers milling around take this kind of chaos in stride, because this group is far from unusual at Wolf PAC. From the center's "Broadway Babies" classes for children as young as 18 months to the annual musicals featuring actors ages 5 to 18, children who have autism and developmental delays, cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, and a range of emotional disabilities perform right alongside their counterparts who are not disabled. And they usually blend in so seamlessly that it's impossible to pick the "special needs" kids out of the lineup. "Labels are for jars, not children!" Wolf likes to say. "And Wolf PAC is not a theater program for children with disabilities. We're a theater program that includes children of all abilities."

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