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Adults with special needs steal the show in RCP’s STAR Players program

STARS of the Stage

Rockwall Community Playhouse’s STAR (Special Theatre at Rockwall) Players will bring their theatrical talents to the stage once more this upcoming fall. Pictured are cast members from STAR Players’ 2015 production of “Footloose the Musical” (from L to R): Zachary Wincent, Sabrina Williams, James Taylor, Elaine Scialo, Shannon Harrison, Edwin Calderon, Allison Elliot, Matthew Kwasniak, and Jack Hopkins. Not pictured: Brett Sutherland.

(ROCKWALL, TX — June 29, 2017) For the past five years, Rockwall Community Playhouse has shined the spotlight on the theatrical talents of young adults with Down syndrome and autism through its STAR (Special Theatre At Rockwall) Players program.

Bursting on the scene at RCP in August 2012, STAR has continued to be an amazing opportunity for those with special needs to come together and share in the fun and fellowship of community theatre.

“Probably the biggest thing is that it has bonded them as a group,” said Joyce Hopkins, one of the program’s directors. “It has stretched them beyond abilities they never thought they had. They’re doing things that they didn’t know they could do.”

Each year STAR offers a spring workshop for young adults with Down Syndrome and autism ages 16 and up that teaches them all things theatre arts. The workshop is held every Saturday for 10 weeks beginning in March, and covers everything from how to apply stage makeup and set construction to stage directions and lighting. Then in the fall, the actors take center stage in a two-week performance workshop where they hold rehearsals during the first week and perform in shows on the weekend of the second week.

“They’re learning stage technique, characterization, voices, performing as multiple characters, stage directions, helping with sets and props,” Joyce said. “Everything they do is musical so they’re singing and it’s choreographed, and they learn dances. They’re also learning movement and how to become the character.”

Performances are held on Friday and Saturday nights at 7 p.m., with a Sunday matinee at 2 p.m.

James Taylor and Jack Hopkins hold up cast shirts from their STAR Players performances.

“We pretty much sell most of the seats for every show, so that’s why we added that third show on Sundays,” Joyce said. “It also gives them more of the experience of a regular performance schedule for main stage shows, which are typically Friday and Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons.”

Joyce’s son Jack Hopkins (35) has been a part of the program since its beginning. He said the thing he most enjoys about acting in STAR is getting to perform in front of a live audience.

“I like to make the audience laugh, and I have a lot of fun getting to be different characters,” Jack said.

Joyce said the actors love getting to work with Lloyd Turney, who has directed multiple shows for STAR Players.

“Lloyd has been our director the entire time. He’s amazing with the actors. He tries to get them as involved as he can in the development of their characters,” Joyce said.

Joyce added that the STAR program has built confidence in the young adult actors and introduced them to a fun experience they can share together as one united cast.

“I think a defining trait of any program is if it makes you better for having been a part of it. These adults are better all around for having done STAR Players,” she said.

Each actor pairs with a student volunteer who becomes their stage buddy during the performance workshops. The volunteers stand on stage with them during a show and assist with lines, cues and dance movements. They dress all in black during performances and have the script in their hands, from which they read the actor’s lines and have them repeat it in character.

Many of the volunteers end up form lasting friendships with the actors they mentor during the program. For recent Rockwall-Heath High School graduate Mackenzie Lewis, the volunteer experience has been truly life-changing.

Mackenzie said she first started volunteering for STAR as an incoming high school freshman and had no idea that the she was in for the experience of a lifetime.

“Being a part of the STAR program has completely changed my life,” Mackenzie said. “These amazing actors have made me realize my passion for working with people with special needs, and I have decided to go into special education in college. They are truly unique people, they are some of the smartest, most compassionate, and charismatic group of people I have ever met. It is impossible to leave a STAR rehearsal or performance unhappy – they just have that type of impact on you! They have become part of my family.”

The program had such a positive impact on Mackenzie that soon she had her mom, Jen Lewis, joining her as a STAR volunteer.

“My involvement in STAR was simply because my teenage daughter continuously raved about the STAR program,” Jen said. “Mack would come home and tell me that I would love volunteering during STAR and I would fall in love with the actors.  Wow!  She was right!  Walking in and seeing smiling faces and receiving hugs every day is more than worth my time!  Now, I too, look forward to STAR every summer!”

Chris Taylor, whose son James (32) has been an actor in STAR since its inception, said the program has given her son an opportunity to be with friends while doing what he loves.

“James is a very social person and he likes hanging out with his friends, and so that part of it he really enjoys. I really like his enthusiasm about acting and that he can be successful doing something he truly likes to do,” she said.

James absolutely loves getting to be on stage, and some of his favorite STAR shows he’s been a part of are ones where he’s had to don some extravagant costumes.

“It’s a lot of fun! I like hanging out with the volunteers, and putting on different costumes and makeup,” James said.

RCP’s STAR Players program serves as a unique avenue that gives adults with special needs the opportunity to and interact with one another and with the non-handicapped community.

“To provide a place where these adults can continue to perform and share their talents, as well as to continue their own development, is very important to RCP,” said program director and RCP Board President Christy Brown. “The amount of hard work and volunteer hours that goes into a successful show each year is tremendous but is so worth it after seeing the performances. For me, this program is one most important we offer at RCP and I’m very proud of it.”

STAR Players will hold its upcoming performance workshop on July 31-August 11. Show tickets can be purchased online at rockwallcommunityplayhouse.org or by calling 972-722-3399.

By Austin Wells, Blue Ribbon News.

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