Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.
- Mark Twain
Those of us who live in Missoula are blessed to have a cultural institution known as the Missoula Children's Theatre, or MCT. MCT is an internationally acclaimed organization which has as its mission "the development of life skills in children through participation in the performing arts." They are known for pulling into a town in their little red trucks with everything necessary to put on a full scale musical production...except the cast. For the cast, they take 50 - 60 local children, rehearse with them for a week, and then put on full performances on the weekends. It is an incredible thing, and you can get a glimpse of it through the award-winning documentary The Little Red Truck.
Here in Missoula, MCT is a community treasure. They offer children's theatre camps during school breaks and over the summer (at beautiful Seeley Lake, MT), as well as a variety of children and adult performances at their theatre. They also, once a year, go into the various schools in Missoula and put on full-scale shows using the students as the cast. And that is where our story begins...
At my children's school, MCT pulled up in their little red trucks and put on a production of Pinocchio. Nicholas and Olivia auditioned but unfortunately were unable to get parts in the show. But while Helena did not audition, she was inspired, and when the fiyer came home announcing that MCT was doing a production of Free to Be...You and Me at the theatre, Helena asked if she could participate.
Helena has taken these initiatives before. In second grade, she wanted to try out for the YMCA soccer team. It was an unmitigated disaster - she did her best but she is not much of an athlete (thanks to low muscle tone) and is was eye opening to see how she was mistreated by some of her teammates (mostly because they did not understand autism) and how I was mistreated by some other parents (mostly because they are ignorant and stupid). She also, as I wrote about last month, took the initiative to try out for a part in her class Christmas play that same year, won the part of Rudolph (with one speaking line) and did really well.
But this is different - this is MCT. This is not the familiar school and classmates, but the Missoula community. But this is also Helena taking the initiative, something we encourage her to do, and rejoice when she does it. How could we say no?
Not to mention that the flyer guaranteed that all kids would have a part...
We signed her up for the Tuesday-Thursday sessions (she constantly reminded us that she could not do Monday-Wednesday because of her Wednesday piano lessons). Basically she does a month's worth of rehearsals, and then two performances in front of about 3000 people on February 22.
Her first rehearsal was January 15. We arrived (thanks to her father's inability to read the time) a few minutes late. In the rehearsal room, there were about 40 other kids ranging from pre-schoolers to high-schoolers. How would Helena do in this unfamiliar setting?
Helena will do just fine, thank you very much.
She followed all instructions flawlessly. When they asked kids to introduce themselves, they asked them to do it as it you were angry. One thing we are working on in Helena's IEP is the ability to recognize emotions, and what they mean. So it was really great to see that, when it was Helena's turn, she put her hands on her hips, stomped her feet, and angrily said "I AM HELENA MARIE DZOMBA, AND I AM NINE YEARS OLD!"
They auditioned the children in groups, and had them say silly things like "Don't go on the roller coaster after you eat Jello!" using a variety of dramatic emotions. And, while Helena was not as dramatic as some of the seasoned veterans of the group, she pulled off all the emotions flawlessly - a huge step for her!
As impressive as Helena was (spoken like a proud Dad!) I was more impressed with the MCT staff. I am always concerned when I put Helena into a new situation with unfamiliar people - more often than not you have to explain autism, and some of her mannerisms, so that people understand. But I was really impressed at how the MCT staff handled the kids. One child in the group is a teenager with Downs Syndrome, another was a shy little girl that did not feel comfortable auditioning, and then preschoolers are always difficult to handle because their attention span is so short and they have not fully learned proper behavior. But the MCT staff showed patience and encouragement for everyone. When the little girl did not want to audition, they kindly had her sit down on the floor and watch everyone else, and then, to break the ice with her, they had the preschoolers pretend they were fish and swim around her!
I will write more about this experience for Helena, but as I close this post I want to talk a little bit about the show. The show is called Free to Be...You and Me, and is based on a best-selling book by Marlo Thomas which was turned into a TV production in the mid 1970s (funny...I don't remember a thing about it). The book was written at a time when diversity was just starting to be celebrated and the traditional stereotypes (man as the breadwinner, woman as homemaker, men never cry, etc.) were being challenged (they still are, though we have come a long way). And while I have never read the book, by understanding is that it is a celebration of who we are, and not who society dictates we should be.
I cannot think of a more perfect show for a child with autism.
Lyrics The New Seekers - Free To Be You And Me lyrics
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