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Teaching Adaptive Musical Theatre

Photo by Heather Lambert

All students of all ability are welcome.

Every student has a right to express themselves through the performing arts. That’s educator Lory Stewart’s philosophy in teaching the adaptive  musical theatre course with peer assistance at Hays High School in Buda, Texas. Students of all abilities and levels of special needs come together with supportive peers and adult aides through acting, singing, and dancing.

Guided by the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills curriculum standards, Stewart’s class is modified for each student’s abilities and communication styles. She says, “The most important lesson is that our students with special needs should not be left out of the performing arts. It is just as beneficial to their communication, self-confidence, and social, physical, and vocal development, as it is for any other student.”

Bringing a Vision to Life

Stewart recalls a time in the 1990s when she was teaching theatre and realized the need for adaptive techniques. One of her students, named Nick, was nonverbal and used a wheelchair. To accommodate his needs, she modified and adapted her lessons so that he was included in projects and performances alongside his peers. After he graduated, Stewart began teaching summer theatre camp for therapeutic recreation for Nick and his friends who also have special needs.

In 2004, Stewart wrote and presented an adaptive musical performance inspired by The Wizard of Oz for adults with special needs. It was presented at Granville Arts Center in Garland, Texas, and supported by the city of Garland. She has since continued to create musicals with support from the city. Each show is approximately 30 minutes long and designed to accommodate individuals’ special skills and communication styles. In 2022, an ensemble of about 20 adults performed an adaptation of Moana.

Stewart became head theatre director at Hays High School (Hays Legacy Players) in 2018. Like her experience with Nick, she had students with special needs in some of her classes. The curriculum, however, was not organized around adaptations and modifications at that time. She says, “I knew there was a better way to make them the center of instruction and have the classes modified specifically for them.”

From there, she created the adaptive musical theatre course with peer assistance. This mixed class invites students with all levels of special needs, including:

● students who are verbal or nonverbal;
● who are ambulatory or in a wheelchair;
● who have hand/eye coordination and those who may not;
● who have gross-motor skills, fine-motor skills, or no motor skills;
● with vision or low vision, or are blind;
● with hearing, hearing impairment, or are deaf;
● who have reading skills or no reading skills;
● and who have memorization skills or no memorization skills.

Students typically utilize a large, open space like a stage or black-box theatre for the class. They often incorporate children’s musical instruments and props like pom-poms, maracas, and hula hoops. They also use costume pieces like crowns, hats, and feather boas when the musical calls for it.

Stewart says the class has been a huge success—for everyone—four years after its inception. “Yes, it can be overwhelming sometimes, but the rewards for all involved outweigh any challenges.”

How Students Learn In Adaptive Musical Theatre

In a traditional theatre course offered through general education, Stewart says students with special needs can feel overwhelmed. They may be in a class with up to 35 or more students, and the curriculum isn’t designed to intentionally accommodate their needs. Students with special needs often shut down without individual attention. The adaptive musical theatre course, though, gives them the opportunity to be an active participant with a specific role in productions.

Stewart says, “There are videos of students at the beginning of the year who are quiet or nonverbal and not connecting with anyone or the music, and not expressing themselves. Then you see a video of them at the end of the year laughing and bouncing to the music and connecting with their supportive peers. It’s truly magical when a student engages for the first time.”

Student supportive peers also gain important skills when they take the class. They learn compassion, empathy, patience, respect, and leadership skills as they build a relationship with a person who has special needs. Many of these students, Stewart says, have family members with special needs and have “a heart for assisting in this class.”

For the first four to six weeks of class, Stewart models what the class looks like through warm-ups and choreography. Supportive peers then assume these responsibilities. Additionally, they learn to help students with their individual needs. That could include pushing a student’s wheelchair during dances, guiding those who are vision-impaired or blind, keeping the ensemble organized and safe on stage, holding an individual’s digital speaking device, helping performers with their lines, creating theatre crafts, and playing games.

“I love seeing these students perform and feel so proud of themselves on stage and after a performance,” says Stewart. “Not to be overly dramatic but witnessing the parents and families of these students laughing during the performance, crying from pride seeing their child perform, giving them flowers and hugs on their special day where they are the star, will change your life as an educator or audience member.”

Training Arts Educators on Adaptive Arts

Stewart trains theatre, music, and dance educators on how to create adaptive arts programs at their schools and in their communities in Texas, the U.S., and abroad. She taught a class for educators on the topic in 2020 through the Center for Educator Development in Fine Arts (CEDFA) in Texas. Here are a few highlights and insights from feedback she received after the class:

● “Having worked with the kids with different abilities for my whole career, I know the tangible benefits from sharing the joy with kids who just need someone to be there with them. I love how you said to just be in the moment with them. It makes a world of difference.”

Stewart Class 2● “It teaches so many different things about being a human, that are beyond theatre. Also, using the scope of theatre to honor and respect each other!”

● “Any time a human is given the chance to empathize and care for someone else, a million lessons are learned. That person takes that empathy and shares it with the people they know and it starts a small but powerful cycle.”

● “Artistic expression is not just for the people that society deems normal or able. The act of expression through art is universal throughout all of humanity. Everyone deserves the opportunity to create.”

Stewart serves as both theatre director and fine arts department chair at Hays High School. The Hays Legacy Players is an award-winning student theatre troupe that produces seven shows each year. In addition to theatre, Stewart has taught speech, debate, and interpretation/competitive acting since 1993. She holds a BFA in theatre studies from the University of Texas at Austin.

You can view more of Stewart’s work at thedramaqueens.com and hayslegacyplayers.com. If you’re an educator who is interested in pursuing professional development and starting an adaptive arts program like Stewart’s at your school, contact CEDFA at 512-491-8087, and visit CEDFA.org.  ♦

Natalie Clare is a regular content contributor to Educational Theatre Association. She’s a freelance writer who specializes in arts and culture, and is based in Cincinnati, Ohio. Visit her work at nataliecwrites.com

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