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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Appleton North class takes theater a step beyond

Social issues are tackled in original plays each year.
Appleton North High School: "Differently Abled" (Warren Gerds)
Appleton North High School: "Differently Abled" (Warren Gerds)

PHOTO: Appleton North High School Theatre performers Wes Kasdorf, left, and David Fisher enact a scene in the original piece, “Differently Abled.” Warren Gerds photo

GREEN BAY, Wis. (WFRV) – In the midst of a performance, all goes dark. From the blackness comes a voice, “Listen.” The voice proceeds to tell us this is what it is like to be blind. It’s a convincing tact. Everybody in the room is silent. Listening.

The performer is a sighted female student, one of a group of 18 cast members and crew who last week presented the original theater piece, “Differently Abled,” as part of the offerings of the Appleton North High School Theatre Seminar/Production class. The class puts on “regular” shows as entertainment, as do many schools. AND THEN the theater class each year creates a play on social issues. It’s theater a step beyond.

This year, in “Differently Abled,” students put themselves under the skin of persons dealing with disabilities. The students in the class of Ronald Parker researched and created 16 individual scenes. On the day I visited, “Differently Abled” was performed eight times over the course of the eight-period day. The performances were for Appleton North students. A public performance was given on the next evening.

The presentation included slides of photographs and graphics, recorded music, assorted props, signage on the walls and lighting effects.

***

Cast: Rachel Charniak, sophomore; Leah Dreyer, sophomore; Tony Dix, senior; David Fisher, junior; Allie Frank, senior; Jon Hale, junior; Wes Kasdorf, senior; Nick Leist, senior; Liza Long, senior; Zoey Ramirez-Quandt, sophomore; Molly Sina, senior; Marda Rude, senior.

Crew: Olivia DeBruin, freshman; Rachel Flom, sophomore; Rachel Fritzell, sophomore; Danielle Huth, junior; Cassi Jolitz, sophomore; Aaron Mankovecky, senior.

***

Students presented monologues and joint scenes. Here, in italics, is the sequence, with additional remarks, including those of students in the production.

Did you see him?

There is more to the person seen than just, “That guy in the wheelchair.”

If I’m okay with who I am, why can’t you be?

Tourette Syndrome is depicted, punctuated by ticks. The portrayal includes two people laughing at the young man with the twitches. He says he feels like a caged animal put on display in a zoo. He says there is nothing wrong with him. “My disability is part of who I am.”

David Fisher, who enacted the scene, said during a break, “I was working on the ticks, and I wanted to make them as accurate as possible in the portrayal, so I went to YouTube and started looking up examples. I found out there were people who would document just them doing their homework and watching them do their ticks and yelling out profanities. It was really interesting that people would do that, and it was cool to see that they wanted other people to know about it. And so I wanted to continue that by portraying it effectively to the audience and getting them to understand how it was. I watched a bunch of these videos, and that linked me into cool documentary videos and things about coprolalia (blurted profanities) and different statistics about tourette’s. It wasn’t hard to find information when you look for it.”

Oh, how I want to be her

A young woman with multiple sclerosis is driving a car and listening to a “smiling” voice on NPR speak of her MS symptoms, which are not as challenging as those of the driver, who uses a crutch when she leaves the car.

I didn’t do anything

A young woman is reading when she notices two young men laughing. “They must really like me,” she recounts thinking. One of the young men sneers and talks about the “retard” and sneaks up behind her and scares her and causes her to cry. He laughs. The young man with the jerk does nothing.

Nick Leist portrayed the jerk. “That role was kind of bestowed upon me, you could say. At first, I was a little bit unsure of how I was going to do that. But then, as I started to perform it, I started to read what the lines were actually saying, and it really spoke out to me. There was a point in time when I was in the commons – and it wasn’t this specific scenario – but I have experienced seeing a bully antagonizing one of the special needs kids. That really frustrated me. I felt like I was almost at the point where I was the other guy (in the play), who didn’t do much when he could have done something.”

The Epileptic’s Song

A poem is part of the scene in which a young woman convulses in an epileptic seizure. The portrayal is vivid, akin to an electrical shock.

Marda Rude performed. “We were discussing different conditions and disabilities to portray in this piece, and one of the topics that kept coming up was epilepsy because it’s something that not a lot of people know about. It’s kind of a hidden disability, and only if someone’s having a seizure would you know that they have epilepsy. I was very interested in learning more about this. I saw a couple of TV shows/documentaries on it. I requested to do this poem because I felt like I could learn a lot, and I felt like our audiences could learn a lot – just like an awareness poem of epilepsy.”

Marda Rude got the chance to scare people – “scare everyone, including myself.”

She added, “My favorite line of the poem is, ‘Most of the time I accept it’s just me, the way I was born to be. I’ll take it as it comes.’ And so, yes, it’s a shock and almost terrifying probably to see someone having a seizure right in front of you. I’m sure it’s a shock for an audience to see that occur in front of them. That line that comes right after the seizure I think counteracts the shock a little bit – if I have epilepsy I’m not afraid to be who I am, I’m not upset when this occurs. It’s just who I am.”

Assume

It’s the scene depicted in the photograph above. It’s about a young man in a wheelchair who objects to a store employee speaking to him as though he has a mental disability when his is a physical disability. Don’t make assumptions, he says. “This chair doesn’t define who I am,” he says.

Why don’t they come?

A young man (Nick Leist, in a sympathetic role this time) awaits a doctor – someone – as he sits wrapped in blankets, his body wasting away.

Overdue tip

A woman with a cane and a gnarled hand speaks to an unseen restaurant server and tells that person, “It’s a problem with my muscles, not my brain.”

All that you are – that also is me

Leah Dreyer portrayed a blind person with a cane, reciting a poem.

The poem: My heart, my spirit, my soul – the three things that make me whole – each and every day I awaken to the looks of those who assume me forsaken. Right here right now I tell no lie. I’m ready to live and not let myself cry. Disabled in body but able in mind, inspired to achieve, to seek and to find, aware of the truth you choose not to see, all that you are that also is me.

Leah Dreyer said, “We’ve had past experiences. One of the students who graduated last year was blind. You’d see him walking through school with the blind cane. We just felt that was another disability that we needed to portray further.”

She added, “We sort of decided as a class which disabilities everyone was going to have (in performance) that we could cover in as much of a wide spectrum as we could.”

The theater class is elective. Leah Dreyer said, “I’m just really interested in theater, and I’d really like to learn more about it and be able to perform things for the public. And a lot of people that I know are taking this class or have taken previous theater classes, so it just seemed like a good idea.”

For “Differently Abled,” students from various classes were in the performance room over the eight periods.

Leah Dreyer said the theater class was assisted in preparations by people familiar with disabilities, including the school’s special education department. “I think they added a personal side to it, that they really knew what was going on and how these kids acted and were treated.”

And I realized that the training worked both ways

A young woman decides to “work with special kids” and has lessons to learn. Four people with special needs are depicted. One notices the young woman is “mad” one day and, to make her feel better, gives her a hug that’s rejected at first. Realizations come, such as differences in all people. The young woman finds “some kids who were quiet, some who were jerks and some who were bored. I don’t know why I thought they would all be the same. Why would they be?”

Just because I see things backward doesn’t mean that’s what I am

The scene is a classroom. A male student is called on to read from page 216. From his lips comes nothing. The teacher presses for him to read. Nothing. “What a retard,” a classmate says, and he and others laugh.

Featured in the portrayal was Tony Dix. “I actually happen to have dyslexia, so this piece was easier for me to do because I grew up with it. Probably since second grade I knew that I had dyslexia, and this piece hit home, like, really, a lot…  Not everything in that piece applies to me because dyslexia comes in all different forms. To be able to not read is a greater form of dyslexia. I am not as bad. I’m a milder form. (The classroom scene in the play) is what happens. And that has happened to me in the past – choke up, not be able to read, having the teacher call on you, start getting impatient and students laughing. It has happened.”

If people with Down Syndrome ruled the world…

The entire cast lined up and recited a list of positives.

… What I am is whole and fair and beautiful and good

A young woman is deaf. She speaks poetically of not being accepted at home and tells of a “burden in my heart, anger.”

Listen

This is the scene of total darkness, with Liza Long as the voice in the dark.

“To be honest, it was completely random (that she got the part; she had others, too). I knew there was a piece we were doing where it happened in pitch darkness, and I just happened to be assigned that. And so, I got that opportunity, and it was interesting to perform that piece without seeing the audience or seeing anyone around me and just speaking to that pitch black. I think I really connected with the poem. It was an interesting experience; usually you’re in the spotlight. Instead, I was in the darkness.”

Welcome to Holland!

This is a symbolic and even a somewhat comical scene. A young woman envisions a momentous experience she convinces herself will take place in classical, historic, exotic, picturesque Italy. Turns out the reality is, Welcome to Holland! – which isn’t half bad it its own right.

They said that I am disabled

The entire cast puts a final touch on the production, with slides helping underline the awareness theme.

A key point was made by David Fisher in an interview: “It’s all around us, and it made us realize that this is really an issue that should be dealt with and is something that we can all change. It affects everyone, not just this high school. There are special needs and special ed kids with different abilities in different high schools all across the world.”

+++++

 

In interviews during a break, I searched for more.

Molly Sina was asked what Appleton North is saying with a theater project like this.

She said, “The theater program does a whole variety of things, but this one is probably one of the most important things that we do here with theater classes. It’s because we are given the opportunity to take an issue that is something that is in society, in our school, that is not necessarily a taboo but something that needs to change or needs to be addressed or needs to be fixed, and we are able to show that and show what can be changed to the youth of Appleton in our high school. Classes can sign up to come and see this. It’s a good opportunity to get the word out. Our goal – we kind of joke about it – is to make people uncomfortable. If you see them squirming in their seats, you know that you’re getting the message across. People who are just okay with what’s going on, they’re just going to sit and let it fly by, but if you see the squirming, it’s a good thing. So our goal is to make them squirm with addressing topics that are big issues.”

David Fisher and Leah Dreyer spoke of how “Differently Abled” was the second social-issues project of the school year because the theater class repeated last year’s production on mental illness for the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

David Fisher said, “Yes, we do realize that not everyone (every high school) does this, but we want to spread the fact that we did it because we realize how much of an impact this has had in the past couple of years. We reprised last year’s social issue play on mental awareness because NAMI asked us to present that to one of their conferences, and then we gave the script out to them, and they’re going to put it out to all these other high schools who are thinking about doing the piece. So we want to encourage other high schools to do a similar sort of awareness piece to make students think about what’s happening in their high school and how they can make it more comfortable for everyone.”
You may email me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air features on WFRV between 6 and 8 a.m. Sundays.

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