Skip to main content

The City Journals

How far they’ll go

May 07, 2018 01:42PM ● By Jet Burnham

Sophia Rodriguez, portraying young Moana, is assisted by support staff during a musical number. (Jennifer Eyre /Kauri Sue Hamilton School)

By Jet Burnham | [email protected]

It was a school musical like no other when students with significant multiple disabilities dazzled audiences with an adapted performance of “Moana.”

“My favorite part is the pride and joy on the students’ faces,” said Rita Bouillon, principal at Kauri Sue Hamilton School. “I don't see stage fright, just pure delight.” 

Each spring, music therapy specialist Maddie Nelson, adapts a script based on a popular movie into a school production that will highlight every student at the school—200 students aged 5–22.

“The ideas she has are amazing,” said teacher Janel Van Dyke. “She thinks about each class and their capabilities and strengths and what they can do. I had some students that were great at being able to hit the drums, so that’s a skill we used in our scene.” Others showed their skill in riding adaptive bikes across the stage.

Gracie Jones delivered her lines by tapping a preprogrammed iPad. (Jennifer Eyre /Kauri Sue Hamilton School)

Some students loved performing. Others become over-stimulated and tend to have difficulty staying on stage for the whole scene. Adapting a tool used in the classroom, teachers placed small trampolines behind wave props for students to jump on during their scene.

“Jumping on the trampoline is a calming mechanism so they can be up there participating, but they’re still doing something they enjoy, and it keeps them involved,” said Van Dyke.

The play featured audience interaction, providing opportunities for students to showcase physical skills.

“A lot of times, we throw things into the audience,” said Nelson. “We try to show an independent skill with the kids.”

One class set off confetti rockets during a scene with Te Ka, the lava monster. During ocean scenes, students sprayed the audience with squirt bottles. Islanders threw flower petals, and the Kakamora stepped on stomp rockets, pelting the audience with “blow darts.”

“The creativity that goes into this is incredible,” said parent Rachel Farley. “I’m amazed what they can do with the kids in wheelchairs that have very little physical functioning.” Wheelchairs were turned into props like boats, waves and islands. “These kids need so much assistance, so it’s amazing that they can take what the kids can do and turn it into an asset in the play,” she said.

Nelson casts actors and classes for specific scenes, taking into consideration students’ abilities.

 “We like to showcase each of them and what they can do and have an opportunity to bring them forward to the front of the stage,” said Nelson.

One class was chosen to be villagers because they had the mobility skills to pick coconuts during their scene.

“I chose them for that because I knew they would be capable of walking up steps, reaching up and grabbing something,” said Nelson. “The choreography is really based on what I think the kids are capable of.”

Drums were a popular prop for students at Kauri Sue Hamilton School. (Jennifer Eyre /Kauri Sue Hamilton School)

Each student was paired with a support staff member, made up of the itinerant staff of speech, occupational and physical therapists. They assisted each actor on stage with dancing and moving around the scene and with delivering lines. Being familiar with each student, they helped incorporate their individual skills.

Actors portraying Maui, Moana and Grandmother delivered dialogue through a speech enhancement technology on iPads. Pre-recorded lines spoken by voice actors played for the audience when students, with assistance from support staff, tapped the iPad screen. The Tap-to-Speak program was coordinated to play the next line of dialogue each time one of the screens was tapped.

Sammie Call, who played Heihei the chicken, delivered her lines independently. She said “bawk bawk!” whenever the microphone was held in front of her. She loves chickens and told her mom she was going to play that character even before she was cast.

“She played the role better than anyone could have,” said Nelson.

Nelson said teachers are always very supportive of the productions, even using classroom time and budget to make props and scenery. Some classes worked on their own costumes as a class project, tie-dying and painting T-shirts.

One classroom made fireballs to throw at the audience during the scene of the lava monster.

“For a functional skills group, the teacher had the kids scrunch colored paper into a ball and put it into a bag,” said Nelson.

Families look forward to the annual productions, proudly inviting family and friends to come see their children on stage.

“There are a lot of parents that are just grateful because it normalizes their child and gives them the opportunity to have that experience,” said Nelson.

Farley’s son has participated in the school’s last five productions. 

“It is neat for him to be involved in something bigger than just him,” she said. “I don’t think these kids would ever get an opportunity like this any other time or place. This school is amazing.”

Van Dyke’s son Bayler is also a student at the school. She checked out her other children from high school to see their brother’s performance. 

“They loved that Bayler had his own program and that he could actually have a part,” she said. “I have experienced many different schools and programs for special needs students, and I have to say, this was by far my favorite.