For young performance artists who have autism, Florida Studio Theatre provides a rare chance to shine when the curtain rises.
FST has been accepting performers with a variety of disabilities including autism for the past 20 years. Currently, theater has been working on their production “Dancing Lessons,” a play by Mark St. Germain about a college professor with autism who takes dancing lessons from an injured broadway dancer.
The program was originally nicknamed VIP (for Visually Impaired Program) and the name stuck even after it was opened up to young people with many different needs. What is perhaps most welcoming about VIP is that actors don’t age out. The ages of participants range from 11 years old to 29.
Performers with VIP meet one afternoon per week during fall and spring, and for two weeks during the summer. The program is run by Beth Duda, Educational Director of the theater. While she was originally a little overwhelmed by the project, Duda is now excited to tackle any issues, taking every possible opportunity to create learning experiences for her students.
After rehearsal is over for the day, Duda opens up the group for “Share Time”, where everyone can showcase a talent, tell a story or share a joke.
Many of the students have experienced marked improvement in their skills, including communication. 21 year old Jacob Brown had a speech problem that meant he was barely understood by his peers when he first started the program. Now, the young man can belt out tunes like “Bring Him Home” from Les Miserables to captive audiences.
Since being onstage takes so much confidence for anyone, the support that these children receive from their fellow actors and their instructors is crucial to their improvement, both onstage and in their outside lives. The encouragement from fellow artists provides a community where the actors can create performance art without fears and anxieties.