At 14 years old, my daughter Amanda has found her passion: She wants to be on stage. It started with the High School Musical movies. She then moved to Hannah Montana and Camp Rock. All those kids get to be on stage. They dance. They sing. People applaud. Fun is had by all. What kid wouldn’t want to be them?
Unfortunately for her, she falls into a black hole, age-wise, for drama programs for kids with special needs. Syracuse University has a wonderful program for adults, with a waiting list a mile long because no one ever wants to leave. SU just started a program for kids 8 to 12, which Amanda is too old for. This leaves me looking for avenues in the typical world.
Our first foray was with a summer drama camp through our town. It was half-day, which I preferred. Along with having Down syndrome, Amanda has type 1 diabetes. A half-day program means we don’t have to deal with lunch, blood checks and insulin doses. I was told it was low-key and no stress. It was run by a teacher everyone loved, parents and students alike. It was close to home. It seemed so easy.
There were hints along the way that it might not work out as well as I had hoped. I was told, “We couldn’t get Amanda out of the trunk today,” or “She sure likes to be on stage, doesn’t she?” But I did not press to be more involved. I knew this teacher did not appreciate parent participation. Other than chatting with him on the way out of the rehearsal at the end of each day, I tried to fly under the radar. But warning bells rang.
Honestly, if I were a kid, I would have loved this program. The students really did all the work. Other than the stage, a script, and real props, it reminded me of the shows we used to put on during the summer for our parents in my neighbor’s basement. The teacher in charge acted more as an adviser.
The issue was this: Amanda needs clear direction. She needs to know exactly what is expected. The play was a murder mystery. There were two intentional deaths on stage, and two that were not. Amanda was cast as a maid. She wasn’t really sure what she should be doing other than walking across stage, which she did often. In the second act, however, seeing the audience’s reaction to the actors who died, she decided to die as well. This was not in the script.
Behaving as professionals, the other actors on stage ignored her as she fell to the floor in a swoon. Not getting the appropriate response, she decided she should get up and die again. I thought my head would explode. It took every fiber of my being to not stand up and yell, “Someone get her off the stage!” The good news is that most people thought it was funny, or they were so busy watching their own children they didn’t notice my daughter’s antics. At least I am hoping so.
It took me a few months to muster the courage to seek another drama program. A good friend recommended a program on the other side of town. After much thought, and pleading from Amanda to be in another drama “camp,” I signed her up.
From the start this was a totally different experience. The students attended rehearsal for three hours every Saturday morning. They rotated between an hour of music, an hour of dance and an hour of acting. Rehearsals started in September and the production was in December.
As the weekend of the play drew near, it became apparent Amanda’s previous experience hadn’t trained her adequately for what she needed to do this time. Not only did she need to know when to be on and off stage, but she needed to know where on stage she needed to be. Amanda was being told to “be on her spot near the bridge.” There was not an actual “spot” to be on, and the bridge had not been built yet. It made no sense. I began to worry Amanda might not figure it out by the time performances began.
This time I asked if I could help. Would they allow me to assist during rehearsals to make sure Amanda understood? Would they let me be backstage during the play to aid with entrances and exits?
It would have been easy for the powers that be to say no. It would have been easy for me to give up. It would have been a bit less easy for me to explain to Amanda why all of a sudden drama was over, but I could have come up with something.
But easy hadn’t worked the first time. Thankfully, I wasn’t the only one willing to put in the extra effort. Yes, I was welcome to attend the rehearsals to give Amanda a bit of personal direction. And the director walked Amanda around the stage to help her feel comfortable. The dance instructor came up with strategies to enable Amanda to boogie on her spot. The head administrator took time to laminate colored letter “A”s for visuals so Amanda could see her marks. And most importantly, certain children in the play subtly assisted during scenes, without being told.
It was hard work. But, as the director said after the last dress rehearsal, “She made it!” There were three performances and Amanda did well in all of them. I was sitting on a prop during curtain calls the final night, tears in my eyes, as Amanda waved and blew kisses to the applauding crowd.
One of my fellow stagehands said, “Look at your daughter: She is stealing the show. I can’t take my eyes of her.” She didn’t steal the show. She was part of the show. She was a member of this wonderful family. She was included. It wasn’t easy but it was worth every minute.
Deborah Cavanagh lives in Manlius with her husband and two children. She has written for local organizations supporting children and adults with special needs and publishes the blog www.momofmanyneeds.com.
Photo above: © Tracy Whiteside | Dreamstime.com