Middletown's Unified Theater showcases the talent of kids of all abilities
The Middletown Press - 1/30/2019
Jan. 30--MIDDLETOWN -- Twenty-three-year-old Othar "Odie" Wilson Jr. perhaps best exemplifies the transformative power of Unified Theater.
Over the course of six years, Wilson, who has autism, has blossomed in Middletown's program, developing his natural singing ability and penchant for quick learning.
He's the strongest vocalist in this year's group of 45 students of all abilities, said Karen Nocera, recreation supervisor and inclusion specialist, who has led the city's Unified Theater program for the past eight years.
He quickly took to signing, part of the big number, "I Believe I can Fly," from the film "Space Jam." It's Odie's favorite movie, one he's watched more than a 100 times, said his father Othie Wilson.
Keith Vinci, the son of deaf parents who serves on Middletown's Committee Concerning People with Disabilities, taught the youth how to use sign language.
This year's production, "Unified's Got Talent," has three performances, Wednesday through Friday. It's based on the popular television show "America's Got Talent."
The students will demonstrate each of their skills: among them, circus tricks, guitar, improvisation, singing and dancing. Common Councilman Eugene Nocera (Nocera's husband), Assistant Superintendent of Schools Enza Macri and state Rep. Quentin Phipps serve as guest judges of the students' acts.
Youth in grades four through twelve take part in Unified Theater, along with special needs students in the Transition to Life Center program, which teaches Middletown High School graduates to develop skills in independent living, careers, community resources and day-to-day academics.
Unified Theater's motto is "Let teens lead, let creativity rule, and put the spotlight on ability."
The program began in 2002 at Conard High School in West Hartford. The youth-led movement fosters meaningful inclusion of teens of all abilities and backgrounds through the performing arts, according to its Facebook page. Since then, it has been adopted in middle and high school drama programs throughout the country.
Funding for the productions came from a $4,500 check from the Mayor's Ball proceeds, enough to fund the program for the next three to five years, Nocera said. Community support included local businesses that purchased ads for the playbill, donations from school employees who took part in dress-down days, and $5 donations from the family of participants, who gave "shout outs" to their actors in the playbill.
When Odie first joined, in 2012, he "just jumped in," his father said. Socialization with older kids really boosted his confidence. "He loves it to death," Wilson said. In fact, his father is so impressed with Middletown's program, he drives his son from Groton to take part.
Becky Carroll, who volunteers with Unified Theater, is the mother of three daughters. One, now in college, participated in the program since second grade.
Her youngest two, Aislinn, 14, and Zoe, 12, also perform. "Although we didn't really let second-graders in, [Aislinn] had (orchestral) strings in the same building. She would get out, eat her little dinner, and watch the big kids," her mother said.
"She was 7 years old and she was choreographing numbers for the high school students. It was insane," said Nocera, who let her take part as an exception because of her obvious talent. "We put her on stilts and let her stand on a box," she said.
Zoe was in fifth grade when she began. She was a little more reticent at first. "It's because of her personality. She wasn't the one who wanted to be in the spotlight," Carroll said. But that changed after she saw her sisters enjoying Unified Theater. "It drew her out of her shell," her mother added.
"Now, it's all she wants. She's hogging the spotlight," Nocera said with a laugh.
"What's so special about Unified Theater is 'it's a worry-free zone,'" something a student told her that really stuck in her mind, Nocera said. "You're not going to be stressed out or worried here if you're running late, if you can't make a night. This is a place where, whenever you come, you feel comfortable."
A big part of Unified Theater is the journey. "For a lot of kids, there are real leadership roles in this," Nocera said. "Everyone has their own strengths and the kids bring it in. The adults are not doing that."
The kids rehearse Wednesday nights from October through January, when Saturdays are added in. "It's profound to see what the students do -- independently," Nocera added.
"Unified is a place with some of the most talented actors that strive to push themselves beyond their limits. It always amazes me what you guys can accomplish. Break a leg to all the actors and techies. I have no doubt in my mind that they will put on a stellar performance," said Kenny Liappes, who participated in last year's show.
Ahead of the Friday show, at 6:30 p.m., there will be a fashion show with the theme "One World One Heart," which encourages the idea of living in harmony. Nocera tells the children to wear something they feel special in when they walk the catwalk.
For Carroll, watching how the kids of all abilities interact with one another is a great pleasure. "This inclusion idea is second nature to them. They automatically think that way. It's been really heartwarming to see they are so generous, giving and thoughtful," she said.
In fact, her oldest daughter was so moved by her time with Unified Theater she's now pursuing a master's degree in special education.
Performances are Wednesday through Friday at 7 p.m. at the Middletown High School Santo Fragilio Performing Arts Center, 200 LaRosa Lane. Snow dates are Saturday at 2 and 7 p.m. Tickets are a $5 donation at the door. For information, visit middletownunifiedtheater.org.
Managing Editor Cassandra Day can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @cassandrasdis.
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