All over our city, there are amazing people in amazing organizations working towards more inclusive and accessible artistic spaces, providing opportunities where there were none. In this interview series, members of The Chicago Inclusion Project have conversations with people in our community really delivering their message in action...
Hi, Nate! Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us. I'm so excited to learn more about Special Gifts Theatre. Can you tell us a bit about it? What do they do?
Thanks so much for reaching out! I really appreciate it.
Special Gifts Theatre is a place where individuals of all ages with disabilities can come and engage in the theatrical arts without fear of being told they can’t do something. Special Gifts Theatre is in it’s 18th year and has served over 1,115 children with and without special needs and have presented over 40 performances to audiences of more than 18,000 people. We put on several junior version musicals each season in several different locations. Each of our students is paired with a neurotypical mentor and they do everything together from activities in the classroom to singing and dancing on stage. Our students work hard all season long on character development, choreography, and learning their lines. But they also have developed their communication, emotional literacy, social skills, confidence, and so much more. They have become so proud of who they are!
What drew you to them?
I first heard about Special Gifts Theatre from a friend of the family who was the Executive Director at the time and immediately wanted to dive in. My brother, Paul was born with Cerebral Palsy and confined to a wheelchair for most of his life and so I have always had a heart for individuals with disabilities. Having a theatre background as well, SGT seemed like the perfect fit for me and I’m bummed I didn’t hear about them sooner. After my brother passed away 2 years ago, this organization feels like home for me and a place where I can continue to share his legacy.
Special Gifts has partnered with research professionals from UIC, NIU and NLU. What has been some remarkable findings?
As we conduct and compare our research each year, the data indicates a positive increase in behavior and skill development for the students with special needs and their peer mentors after participating in our program. It was also noted that the children were developing broader relationships with other students and their peer mentors.
Most importantly, it was documented that these skills were transferring to environments outside of SGT including school, home and social environments. This is significant as it directly supports our mission of, “enabling personal growth while breaking down stereotypes related to disabilities within the community at large."
The first phase of research led to further research that included studying the effects of SGT on our new population of pre-primary children ages 3-6 years old with developmental delays (Pilot program initiated 2007). Early results have indicated significant increase in attention, pre-literacy skills, language and socialization skills. The researchers from UIC are planning on publishing these results as well.
In 2007, SGT began a new form of evaluation with the UIC researchers, which included independent trained observation and videotape coding of specific children participating in SGT (it is a longitudinal study over a 4 year period). SGT believes that incorporating surveys, focus groups, personal interviews, case reviews and clinical observations provides us with the most significant outcomes measurements.
What are all of you working on right now?
We are currently working on Annie Jr. at our Winnetka location! We have a Tuesday and a Wednesday program in Winnetka and our Tuesday cast just performed last weekend, March 3-4 and we are gearing up for the Wednesday program’s performance this coming weekend on March 10-11. We have our final dress rehearsal this week and the energy is electric!
What was something that has surprised you, either through your overall time, or during your work on this production?
Well, first off…I am continually surprised by how every show comes together despite never getting to run the show in its entirety! But I am continually surprised as SGT in the best way possible. Whether it is a soft spoken student who has been working on her projection for a year and then totally blows you over by speaking her lines loudly and clearly on stage or you cry during “Tomorrow” because the girl playing Annie sings and performs the song with her entire soul and you’ve never heard a more moving rendition before. I am surprised by our older students who have done countless shows with SGT and yet make bold choices on stage that half of the neurotypical actors in Chicago wouldn’t even dare try.
Actor Alexa, who is 18, and has been doing Special Gifts productions since she was 12, noted that she started because her mother MADE her go. Now she loves the program because it offers her a community, independence, and has helped her overcome many obstacles. She’s done everything from Grease to Lion King (where she played Rafiki).
How can people come see Annie and support Special Gifts Theatre?
Please come out this weekend on Saturday, March 10th and Sunday, March 11th and support these STARS! Let’s give them a packed house. The shows are at 2pm and the doors open at 1:30 at Skokie School on 520 Glendale Ave, Winnetka, IL 60093. I know it’s a bit of a trek to get there, but it’s SO worth it. Rent a car, carpool, find a way because it will change your life. You can also support SGT by your donations! Anything will help!
You can buy tickets to Annie or donate to Special Gifts Theatre by clicking HERE.