A Vandalia native is combining her loves of theater and special education through a six-week theater program for children and teens on the autism spectrum.
Katie O’Leary, who was active in theater at Butler High School and in Dayton’s Muse Machine, is running Brighter Connections Theatre as her honors capstone project for Bowling Green State University, where she is studying to become an intervention specialist and minoring in theater.
Brighter Connections doesn’t necessarily look like your average drama camp. It is held in a theater — the Dayton Theatre Guild’s Caryl D. Philips TheatreScape on Wayne Avenue — but there aren’t any flashy costumes or sets. Some students have better verbal skills than others. Some exhibit repetitive motions, such as hand flapping. Some seem anxious, dashing off to a corner to cope with sensory overload or worrying about memorizing lines. Some plan to hold scripts even on performance day.
But neither are there any drama queens or obsessive stage parents, and every completed skit draws an enthusiastic round of applause even in rehearsal.
The eight students in the program range in age from 8 to 14. There are nearly as many volunteers as students, and they’re all needed. One accompanies the overwhelmed student calmly to the corner; another prompts lines unobtrusively. One volunteer attends Wright State University; the others are all locals who attend Bowling Green with O’Leary.
As for other differences from a “typical” theater program, O’Leary says hers involves more breaks than average, some non-theater activities such as games, and some extra efforts to prevent “meltdowns,” to which individuals on the autism spectrum are sometimes prone.
In keeping with that last goal, the student who chose the corner was permitted to remain there for much of the evening – but O’Leary’s patience paid off, allowing him to rejoin the group eventually and participate fully.
Part of O’Leary’s role is to translate the theater experience for her students. Sometimes she gives instructions and follows up with a question to determine whether a student has heard her. Sometimes she needs to explain why a particular verbal pun in a script is funny.
“When an audience laughs,” she explains, “they’re not laughing at us. They’re laughing because what we’re doing is funny.”
Many of the students are theater novices, although Theodore Hale, 13, has acted in shows at Oakwood High School and the Dayton Jewish Community Center. He said he joined this program because he thought “it would help me,” and he has found it to be easier than the other plays he’s been involved with.
His dad, Joe Hale, explained that in the past, his son has often had to sit around rehearsals for long periods of time, waiting for the moments when his character appeared on stage. At Brighter Connections, rehearsals are only 90 minutes, and all students are involved the whole time.
A $500 grant from Bowling Green’s Center for Undergraduate Research and Scholarship helped to fund T-shirts, script and program printing, and simple costumes and props.
Four of the eight students are what O’Leary calls “research participants,” which means she developed goals for each and took data to track their progress over the course of the six weeks. Typical goals included initiating conversations, focusing on another student when he or she is talking, or taking responsibility for their own materials and actions – skills the students might already have been working on in other settings such as school or home.
Parents were not permitted in rehearsals for the first three weeks so the students would be more inclined to focus on O’Leary. Later, parents began to attend some rehearsals, and this week – the final week – all parents are sitting in so the students can get accustomed to an audience. For their final performances, the students will perform skits based on Aesop’s Fables, plus a few other skits O’Leary found online and adapted.
O’Leary hopes this won’t be her sole foray into special needs theater. She wants to try out a similar six-week workshop back at Bowling Green during this school year. And if she can find enough funding, she’d like to reprise Brighter Connections here, too.
“I would (and hopefully will) do it again in a heartbeat,” she said, noting she finds theater a very effective tool for teaching special needs students.
“It’s when someone is able to take that experience they had on stage and apply it to their own life that it becomes the most effective,” she said.
Theater gives special needs students “every opportunity to recognize when a fictional character is right or wrong,” she added. “It is obvious who the good character is in a story, and children instinctively want to be that character, hopefully translating some of those same traits into their everyday life.”
Brighter Connections Theatre’s final shows are scheduled for 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at the Caryl D. Philips TheatreScape, 430 Wayne Ave. Admission is free.
See the video
We have video of the students in action at DaytonDailyNews.com.
Dayton Daily News photographer Chris Stewart has set up a gallery of photos of the camp. See it DaytonDailyNews.com