When Sue Voiss’ fifth-grade daughter expressed her desire to be part of a drama production but was discouraged because her best friend, who had mobility problems, couldn’t participate, an idea was born.
“Let’s do something here, in our house, so everyone can be a part of it,” Voiss said.
More than 20 audience members crowded into Voiss’ living room seven years ago to witness the inaugural performance of her troupe, Youth Drama for All. The first play, “Belle, Her Sister and the Beast,” featured 10 actors and used a PVC frame for curtains.
The play was tailor-made: Voiss’ daughter and her best friend played the leads.
With help from fellow parent Stacy Rademacher, Voiss sought to schedule a more official production the following year. They connected with PTAs so that their performances could be staged at local schools.
Today, Youth Drama for All continues to bridge the communities of general-education and special-needs students with productions that feature kindergartners through seniors in high school.
Directors Voiss and Rademacher adapt the selected script over a six-month period to accommodate the needs of the participating children.
“I think a big theme we have been focusing on is each actor’s abilities, not their disabilities,” Rademacher said. “When we design the play, we pay a lot of attention to each student’s strengths. If someone wants lines, they’ll get lines. Every year we customize to match people’s strengths so that every student can shine on stage.”
Youth Drama for All productions require no auditions. Students list their first, second and third role preferences and are cast accordingly.
“My daughter has greeted me at home crying because she didn’t get the lead in her drama class,” Voiss said. “She is special education and doesn’t speak clearly but loves to sing. This year she has a solo in our production.”
Voiss said inclusion and enthusiasm keep her invested in Youth Drama for All.
“We’ve had parents say their kids have been in drama shows before, but they haven’t been on stage,” she said. “We don’t know why that is. When we hear stories like that, that is what pushes us.”
Rademacher agreed, noting that special-needs and general-education students take away much from the experience.
“These kids are put in a situation where they are confronted with all these differences,” she said. “But they gain knowledge and passion, and eventually things don’t look so weird and everything is accepted. Everyone gets an equal chance.”
Shining a spotlight
Youth Drama for All participant Richa Gopal, a junior at Mountain View High School, is making a documentary about Youth Drama for All for an assignment for the high school district’s Freestyle Academy.
“I decided to document it because I haven’t seen or heard of any other groups like this,” she said. “It focuses on the kids rather than the production itself.”
Gopal, who has Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder, said she appreciates the fact that no one is turned away from the plays.
“The kids don’t feel like outcasts,” she said. “They are like family. Not a lot of special-education kids get to be in the spotlight – they finally are at Youth Drama for All.”
Gopal, who has been in three productions, said she enjoys the interactions with all types of students.
“It is really an eye-opener to be in Youth Drama for All, because I got to see kids come out of their shells and open up and get excited about something,” she said. “It is so much fun to see them open up and interact.”
Gopal said she hopes her documentary will spread the word about Youth Drama for All and expand its reach and opportunities to more students and families.
“There are a lot of people in the community who have family members with special needs,” she said. “I want more people to know about Youth Drama for All so that it will get even bigger and more inclusive.”