Chicago Children’s Theater Streaming “This Ability” Plunges Disabled Youth into Superhero Adventure

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The Chicago Children’s Theater (CCT) has made its mark with young people with special needs, offering programs for people with developmental disabilities, people with the autism spectrum, visually impaired and hearing impaired communities for years.

In 2019, their production “X Marks the Spot” allowed visually impaired or visually impaired young viewers to interact with the play through other senses outside of vision. Two years after the start of the pandemic, the organization transformed disability into “This Ability”, a play that centers young people with disabilities on a superhero adventure.

One weekend in November, actors Kevin Smith, Kayla Casiano and Holly Connor were on set in front of a green screen under the direction of co-writers Daniel Carlton and Nambi Kelley to conclude scenes that their characters (Akeh, Moore and Faith , respectively) were part of.

The premise of the play (recommended for ages 6 and up): A feline celebrity escapes O’Hare, lost in the streets of Chicago. Akeh, a young autistic girl, uses the hashtag #thisability to start the search for the runaway kitty. As word spreads, Moore, a deaf youth, and Faith, a blind youth, follow Akeh’s example and use their unique powers to find the feline. Whenever the cat is spotted, the hashtag comes out with a video or photo and it identifies it to all of its friends online, so they can track the cat’s search.

The work features young disabled actors playing against animated film backgrounds. What’s seen in real time is transformed to look like a comic book with the help of media designer Leo Lei. The visuals and sounds of their world that are most dominant to them are the lens through which audiences see / hear / feel their individual comic – from the perspective of their disability. The action and artwork translate the way heroes view the world, challenging perceptions of what it means to be a hero.

Jacqueline Russell, co-founder and artistic director of the Chicago Children’s Theater, said the pandemic has allowed the theater to really work with children with these various disabilities and shine a light on them, so that they can shine and not. not feel too much stress from the live theater.

“Honestly, it’s a wonderful mix of experiences,” said Russell. “It was interesting, with the play ‘X Marks the Spot’ we had people who were blind or visually impaired, consulting and working on the play in different ways. But the cast, there was no one on the show who was actually blind or visually impaired at the time, and we felt bad about that. I had to forgive myself and allow myself to understand that the next step will be that we actually work with visually impaired children on stage. And so it is also for me, a continuation.

“This Ability” is the third production to emerge from Chicago Children’s Theater’s new work incubator, the Springboard Project. In all, 15 theater artists were commissioned through the CTC Springboard Project to come up with new ideas for original plays for young audiences.

For Kevin Smith, 17, a high school student at Jones College Prep, “This Ability” is his first play. Smith plays Akeh, an 11-year-old boy who identifies as “he” and loves trains and canned pop. Her character dons an original jacket with red accents and protective goggles. Smith’s mother, Jennifer Smith, enrolled him in CTC drama camp and he was so successful that Sam Mauceri, CTC Education and Access Program Director, reached out and asked him about his ‘he would be interested in seeing him perform in a play.

“I was very excited about it because I know his abilities when it comes to singing, dancing and making videos on YouTube or with his collection of toys that he loves,” said Jennifer Smith. “I thought it would be perfect for him. I asked him if he was interested? He said yes, and it went from there. He was very nervous, but he worked really hard for it and I think he is very proud of himself. I was very proud of him. We were all tearing up a lot of rehearsals because we were like, “wow, look what they can do. “

When asked for the best part of the play? Kevin said, “I am using #thisability.” He said he wanted to do more games after this one.

“To see all these young artists like Kevin flourish together in this space and then lead them to new opportunities like ‘This Ability’ has been nothing short of amazing,” Mauceri said. “This is something that I really hope we can continue with our programming.”

Kayla Casiano, 18, is a student at Columbia College graduating in Fine Arts. She plays 11-year-old Moore, who identifies as “her”, deaf. Originally from the Belmont Cragin area of ​​Chicago, she was 12 when the comedy bug hit. Sporting an iridescent and purple superhero costume, Casiano said his performer at school told him about “This Ability.” Casiano is the voice of his character. “So people know that I can speak too, that deaf people can use their voice and sign at the same time,” she said.

Casiano wants the audience to come away with the impression that whatever your handicap, you can always do whatever you want. “You can save a person’s life… You just have to go ahead and do it. And you don’t let the hearing people of the world get in your way if you are deaf, because nothing can block you. You can do whatever you want, “she said. Casiano’s costume has three symbols that stand for Power of the Deaf, his suggestion. The production’s costumes were designed by Sky Cubacub and customized for each actor and his handicap.

St. Louis resident Holly Connor, 16, is visually impaired and autistic and plays Faith, an 11-year-old girl, who identifies as “her, them”. She has performed at least 70 plays during her performing career so far – her specialty of musical theater and opera. Having started playing the piano at six months old, singing at three, and started lessons at four, Connor was playing his first piece at the age of 10. Connor’s mother, Katie Sears, discovered the CCT piece via social media. Sears liked the idea of ​​“This Ability” because although projects call for a visually impaired character, they are often visually impaired. But this work wanted a visually impaired character.

“When I read the script I cried because it’s so fair. And it’s just a whole new level when you’re actually playing with someone with a visual impairment. that she identifies more with that, ”Sears said.

Connor is delighted to play the piano in the room. She hopes people will come away with an understanding of the interactions between people who are deaf, blind and autistic.

“Every time I do a new show, everyone includes me, so I’m spreading awareness, acceptance and inclusion. I keep spreading it,” Connor said.

“This Ability” director Carlton has a son who is autistic. Carlton said it’s very difficult to see children with disabilities in scenarios that are usually presented as a barrier. His dream was to turn that perception of a problem into a problem solver.

“This has been a dream of mine, in terms of portraying children with disabilities,” Carlton said. “This is also the magic of CCT: the sensitivity around the conversations. We had actors who didn’t have these particular disabilities reading the first two times, and the conversation continued to evolve into the performance and it ended up being the mission. The kids – their excitement, especially on the first day to get along and see each other without any adjustments and make a character out of that. They came into their power. And that’s a great testimonial from Jacqui and CCT, the disability advocates / helpers in the conversation. “

Elijah Eiler, “This Ability” accessibility consultant agrees.

“Probably the thing I’ve helped the most with talking about disability inclusion ideas and what collective access means, in a practical way,” Eiler said. “Because a lot of times we’ll talk about some kind of disabled access. This project does something very different in that it examines disability and accessibility in a more holistic way. Of course, this is a process where it is not a destination, and there is always room for improvement. I think the theater did a great job doing what it does with it.

“This Ability” will be available for free, release dates December 15 for Akeh (Kevin Smith); January 5 for Moore (Kayla Casiano); January 19 for Faith (Holly Connor). More than chicagochildrenstheater.org

drockett@chicagotribune.com

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