Special Theater at Rockwall presents ‘High School Musical, Jr’

S.T.A.R. Players Workshop lets those with Autism, Down Syndrome shine on Rockwall Community Playhouse stage

(Rockwall) August 13, 2012 – At first glance, a casual observer might not notice anything different in the Rockwall Community Playhouse during the second and third weeks of August. The actors are intent on running their lines; the dancers are focused on the choreographer’s stage direction; the singers are concentrating on the lyrics. But upon closer inspection, it is apparent that these performers are extraordinarily unique in their own special way.

The play under production is High School Musical, Jr., and director Pam Whittaker’s goal is loftier than putting on a perfect performance. Her aim is to give her actors and actresses the self-confidence that will help them achieve greatness both on and off the stage.

Whittaker majored in theater at TCU and pursued an acting career for 20 years before returning to school to get her Masters Degree in teaching.

“My mother was so thrilled when I became a teacher,” laughs Whittaker. “She and my father were appalled when I told them I wanted to major in Theater!”

Whittaker found her calling teaching middle school. “The kids were right on my own maturity level,” she jokes.

Whittaker organized the S.T.A.R. (Special Theater at Rockwall) Players Workshop to use her love of the theater to transform the lives of individuals who have Down Syndrome and Autism after being approached by Mark Wincent, whose son, Zach was involved in a similar acting program in Chicago.

Whittaker enlisted Christy Brown to help her with the project.

“I knew Christy was smart and a great problem-solver who can get things done. She’s also a great salesperson and was able to secure funding for our program from many different sources, including Chipotle Mexican Grill, Rockwall Women’s League, Alliance Bank, Community Bank, Down Syndrome Guild of Dallas, Bresser/Explore Scientific, and Dry Cleaners USA, Rowlett,” Whittaker said.

Consequently, the actors’ parents were pleasantly surprised to have their tuition checks returned at the first STAR Players practice.

“I am so proud to be part of the first STAR production at RCP! Every morning, our actors bring great energy to rehearsal, and I continue to be amazed by the commitment of our volunteers,” said Brown.

Next, Whittaker recruited Kristy Moore, a local family counselor/play therapist, to act as her choreographer.

“Performing arts truly is a humanitarian stage where the actor, narrative, music, and dance can be effective forms of advocacy through a collective voice. Whether I am performing on stage or am a member of the audience, I always leave a performance changed in some way, “ said Moore.

The dynamic trio supervises their cast with equal amounts of compassion and humor. Ranging in age from 17-32, the men and women are enthusiastic participants. Each actor is given a buddy to partner with during the two weeks of rehearsals and the three performances to help guide them through the intricacies of the production – or as one delighted actor exclaimed, “You’re my best friend for two weeks!”

Working with someone who has Down Syndrome is a rewarding experience, as the buddies quickly discovered. Rehearsals are light-hearted, full of laughter and hugs. Most of the actors are huge fans of High School Musical and have the songs and dialog memorized.

The plot revolves around two main characters, Troy and Gabriella, who meet during winter break and are surprisingly reunited when Gabriella transfers into Troy’s high school. Troy excels at sports while Gabriella excels in academics, but both yearn to break out of the molds in which society has placed them.

The storyline has been used in movies like West Side Story and Grease, but the theme is especially meaningful for the young actors involved in this production. Lyrics from the song Breaking Free seem as though they were written just for the Down Syndrome and Autistic adults involved in the show.

You know the world can see us
In a way that’s different from who we are
Now is the time to free us, to touch the sky
To reach for the highest star

And the song, The Start of Something New, is strikingly poignant when sung by the STAR Players:

Living in my own world, didn’t understand
That anything can happen if you take a chance.
I never believed in what I couldn’t see
I never opened my heart
To all the possibilities

Watching the earnest faces of the actors, the musical is no longer the story of a jock and a brain seeking their place in the cliques of high school. It’s a story about adults with disabilities reaching their full potential in a world that doesn’t see them as who they really are—people with dreams who can reach for the highest star.


Nick Claggett as Troy

Allison Elliott as Sharpay

Shannon Harrison as Taylor

Jack Hopkins as Ryan

Elaine Scialo as Gabriella

James Taylor as Chad

Zachary Wincent as Coach Bolton

Sabrina Williams as Ms Darbus


Christy Brown, Kristy Moore, Matthew Pecina, Pamela Whittaker


Jerrell Drake, Hanna Adley, Zoe Wincent, Sharon Maguire, Katy Peterson, Anne-Marie Thacker, Ewa Kocialkowska, Haley Welch, Emma Rachuig, Zoe Settle, Mary Thacker, Riley Adams


Performances are Saturday, August 18 at 7:30 pm, and Sunday, August 19 at 2 pm.Tickets are just $5 and can be purchased by calling 972-722-3399 or online at RockwallCommunityPlayhouse.org.

Rockwall Community Playhouse is located at 609 E. Rusk in Rockwall.

Written and submitted by Mary Thacker. 

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