Unified play

Photo by Tony Kukulich

Members of the cast from Freedom High School's production of "It's Our School, Too!" pose for a photo on the school's stage in Oakley. The play with its theme of social inclusion was the first unified play to be performed in Northern California, and the cast included seven members of Freedom's life skills program.

When the lights came up and the curtain lifted on Oakley’s Freedom High School production of “It’s Our School, Too!” last month, the cast included actors from the life skills program — a first for the school, and the realization of a vision years in the making.

“It was a three-year process of getting ‘It’s Our School, Too!’ to Northern California, and Freedom was happy to provide a new way for our students to transcend stereotypes and create new collaborations between our general education and special needs population,” said Assistant Principal Dr. Steve Amaro. “Personally, I was moved by how well it was received by the community. All of the attendees felt they were better for witnessing a great play that shows how to make schools more inclusive and welcoming places for all.”

The task of mounting the unified production fell on the shoulders of theater teacher Kjelene Deakin just after she started her first year at Freedom. Deakin, an experienced actor who has worked professionally in New York, Los Angeles, Mexico and Canada, turned to teaching after she moved to Livermore with her husband. She taught privately and in the school system in Livermore and Clayton for a number of years before accepting the position at Freedom.

“I was a month or so into teaching, and I already had my year planned” explained Deakin. “I knew what I was going to be doing. Dr. Amaro pulled me aside and said, ‘Hey, I’d really like you to do this, and I’d really like you to get it done quickly, because nobody else in Northern California has done this.’ We really threw it together quite quickly. We did it with maximum impact and minimal extravagance.”

Deakin turned to her Theater III students and found that a production had been attempted the prior year. The cast did not include students from the life skills program, and the production never got off the ground. The play focuses on a theme of social inclusion. Written by Suzy Messerole and Aamera Siddiqui, “It’s Our School, Too!” debuted at the 2010 Special Olympics USA National Games, and is based on real-life experiences of special-needs students, culled from interviews conducted across the nation.

Assembling a cast of 22, including seven life-skills students, the production came together in about two months, with approximately 20 rehearsals. Most of the production’s details were handled by two student directors. Simple staging and lighting were employed, and the actors used a method called reader’s theater in which they rehearse the play and develop their characters like any other production, but they perform with the script in hand so they can refer to it for their lines or notes on direction.

“When we started, we didn’t realize the impact that this play was going to have,” said Deakin. “It just grew and blossomed, and that was really a great experience for my kids to suddenly realize that what they were doing really mattered — and it mattered to a lot of people. It wasn’t just an entertainment piece for mommy and daddy to come and watch. This was actually art for the reasons of art, which is to bring awareness, cause emotional responses in people and to be a call to action for the community. They had not had that experience before.”

Meghan Bell is the mother of Derek Roy, a life-skills student at Freedom who had a role in the play and is also active in the leadership program at the school. According to Bell, 25 of Derek’s leadership classmates attended the play to cheer on his performance.

“Derek loved the unified play,” said Bell. “It was an opportunity to make new friends, and share with everyone similarities instead of differences. As a parent, I have witnessed many of the educational struggles highlighted during the play. The play was a great vehicle for sharing the often-unseen hurdles faced daily by students with educational accommodations. In Derek’s words, ‘I loved the play, Mom, and I love my new friends.’”

For student-director Ellie Kneer, the play’s theme struck particularly close to home.

“As a person with a disability, this play, honestly, was my baby, because my entire life I’ve had to learn to adapt because people aren’t so inclusive of people with intellectual or physical disabilities.”

Deakin believes that an annual production of a unified play could be in the cards. She plans to look for other plays with a similar theme, and didn’t discount the possibility of having the students write their own play. Whatever the future holds, the experience of this production appears to have reached many in the community.

“Watching our students work together and support one another, while also having fun, brought our students closer together,” said Freedom Principal Kelly Manke. “It provided an amazing opportunity for our students to collaborate on a project that benefited individuals, our school and our community. Breaking down barriers and eliminating stereotypes has been a focus at Freedom, and this play demonstrated just that.”