Theater program puts spotlight on disabled students' talents

Chloe Kirkland (left) will get her star turn in Acting Without Boundaries' staging of "Grease." With her is sister Julia.
Chloe Kirkland (left) will get her star turn in Acting Without Boundaries' staging of "Grease." With her is sister Julia.
Posted: October 01, 2010

When her elementary school staged her favorite musical, Grease, Chloe Kirkland hoped for a big part. But she made only the ensemble, despite knowing all the songs and having a smile that can light up a stage.

"Oh my God, I love it so much," she said recently of the musical, brushing wispy, light-brown hair from her heart-shape face.

On Sunday, Kirkland, 19, finally gets to star in the show she has seen more times than she can remember, playing Frenchie, the pink-haired beauty-school dropout, at the Haverford School.

"It's the part I wanted," she said. "She's really funny."

Kirkland, who lives in Villanova and had a brain tumor when she was 3, can thank Acting Without Boundaries, a theater program for people with disabilities, for turning her into a star.

The program was started in 2004 by Christine Rouse, 36, whose family owns ESF Summer Camps, which runs camps on the grounds of a dozen independent schools in the Mid-Atlantic region.

Rouse, who has a teaching degree and cerebral palsy, has loved theater ever since she saw Annie as a young girl. After attending an acting program for the handicapped in her early 20s, she was determined to share her passion with others with physical disabilities.

She told her brothers, who run ESF, about her plan and they encouraged her, providing support and space in their Bryn Mawr office. About 15 students, ages 8 to 30, joined the free program the first year. They performed The Variety Hour at Rouse's alma mater, St. Joseph's University.

After that, the group hunkered down and put on popular musicals such as You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown; Aladdin; Pippin; Peter Pan; The Threepenny Opera; and The Wizard of Oz. The cast grew to about 20 and this year moved from St. Joe's to Haverford's Centennial Hall to accommodate a growing audience.

About 600 people are expected at the 4 p.m. performance, which is free and will be followed by a sock hop fund-raiser.

Rouse, who lives in Haverford, knows how important the program is to children who may feel lonely and left out because of their disabilities.

At the Academy of Notre Dame de Namure in Villanova, "I was teased a lot," said Rouse, who doesn't let stiff limbs and impaired speech slow her down.

She graduated from Villa Maria Academy, where she started the Kids Are Kids program, spreading the word to schools and other groups about what it's like to be disabled.

In high school, "I was the only one with a disability. I wanted to create a place where kids with disabilities could develop friendships, develop self-confidence. I think these kids can do anything," she said.

The students meet once a month during the school year and for a week each summer to prepare for their annual fall show. Younger students perform a separate show in the spring.

Musical director Maria Ceferatti, whose son Simon, 8, is in the junior program, said she had never worked with children who were more enthusiastic.

"These kids want to be there. I hear all the time, they say in their schools they auditioned and got the chorus again. Here they get major roles," she said.

Chloe's mother, Michele, said growing up with the aftereffects of radiation, which caused strokes, blindness, and hearing loss, made it hard for her daughter to socialize. She found a family at Acting Without Boundaries.

"She lives for it," Kirkland said. "She loves it and they love her, and that's a blessing."

Shows are adapted to accommodate the actors' abilities. Students audition, but not for specific parts. At this point, artistic director Neil Hartley, a local actor from Havertown, and Ceferatti are good at casting their performers in the right roles.

If youngsters are disappointed with their parts, she said, "We really sell the role to them."

Gabrielle Korkor, 22, of Moorestown, didn't need coaxing to play one of the Pink Ladies in Grease. She is also a big theater buff and loves being on stage. Her favorite role so far was Sister Margaretta in The Sound of Music.

"I went from a nun to a bad girl," she said with a smile.

In school, Korkor sang in the chorus but never even considered trying out for the shows.

"Every time you see a person in a wheelchair on stage, they're always in the background. They never had a part. I knew I wouldn't enjoy being in the background," she said.

At a recent rehearsal, the actors, who hadn't practiced since July, seemed a bit rusty. Hardly anyone knew the hand motions for the song "Hand Jive," and the upbeat ode to a hot rod "Greased Lightning" lacked electricity.

Finally, Rouse, who was watching and singing along, laid into them.

"I want to see enthusiasm. We only have a week to go," she said. "Every song has to have enthusiasm. You have to see this car."

Added Ceferatti, "I know you know the words. I want to see facial expressions. I want to see excitement when you're singing, 'go, go, go, go.' "

Then, perhaps to perk up her actors, Rouse made a surprise announcement about next year's show. It would be Annie. The girls gasped, the boys seemed confused.

"Does somebody die in that?" one boy asked.

No, no, no, said Rouse, who hadn't even gotten to the big news yet: They would perform at the Arden Theater in Philadelphia. The show is being funded with a $5,000 grant from a small charitable group, the 1830 Family Foundation, which required Acting Without Boundaries to expand its reach into the city.

"I don't know if we're ready for that," said Jordan Lazaroff of Wynnewood.

But Rouse trusts her actors.

"It's what you put into it," she said, "that will make it exciting."


Contact staff writer Kathy Boccella at 610-313-8123 or kboccella@phillynews.com.

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