While teaching an adaptive version of William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” four years ago to exceptional children, or E.C., students at Rocky River High School, teacher Ann Lake quickly realized Shakespeare was meant to be seen, not read.
She reached out to Rocky River theater teacher Matthew Webster for help. Not knowing much about theater, Lake hoped to collaborate with the theater department to produce a small production for parents and families starring her E.C. class.
“That first year, it was just the administration and the parents. The next year, we did ‘A Christmas Carol’ and we invited (students from East Mecklenburg High School), and then we played some basketball,” Lake said. “That opened the door. Last year, I had over 350 people.”
Called Festapalooza, the annual event, which this year will take place on Dec. 20, a Friday, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the school, will feature Rocky River High’s self-contained and autistic students performing Eleanor Coerr’s play “Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes.” That same day, Special Olympics, in preparation for the annual spring sport event, will host a basketball scrimmage after the play concludes. Butler, East Mecklenburg, Hough, Harding, Mallard Creek, Metro, Myers Park, Renaissance at Olympic and Vance high schools all have confirmed attendance to Festapalooza and will participate in the basketball scrimmage.
The event is a way to help both regular education and E.C. students step out of their comfort zones, whether that’s stepping out on stage, or interacting with a new and different group of students.
“It’s a huge day and the regular education students really help the day of. They act as ambassadors to visitor schools, help run the basketball courts, and the theater students are big stars of the day. They are on stage with my students,” Lake said.
Regular education theater students work down stage, dressed in black, helping E.C. actors and actresses who are upstage in costume remember their lines and find comfort in front of an audience to help ensure the spotlight is on the E.C. students, Lake added. Students from the school’s art and apparel classes also are helping with the festival, creating sets and designing costumes.
That first year, Lake said her class practiced for the play only three to four times. This year, they started preparing for the big production in the beginning of October. The play is now an integral part of students’ grades, with theater students learning stage direction and cues to teach to their E.C. buddies on stage, all while helping to keep the pace of the play on track.
“It’s an amazing process,” Lake said. “You don’t always have the regular education students wanting to work with E.C. kids.”
But all students involved are excited to participate, Lake added. After all, the project creates a better understanding of each other and a friendship that in the past has proved to extend from the stage and into the fabric of the school.
“It allows the regular education students the opportunity to really start understanding our students and find their abilities and what they can do,” Lake said. “It starts an acknowledgement of each other. When you start doing that, you can change the whole atmosphere of the school to become about acceptance and understanding.”
The play will begin at 10:30 a.m. on Dec. 20 with a lunch break at 11 a.m. The Special Olympics basketball scrimmage will start at noon and finish at 1 p.m. There is no cost to attend, but space is limited and reservations are required. Contact Lake at email@example.com for more information.