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A new world of theater for people with special needs

07/08/2016 12:12PM ● Published by J. Chambless

The cast rehearses the opening song of 'Seussical, Jr.'

Gallery: CAST theater group [4 Images] Click any image to expand.

By John Chambless
Staff Writer

Surrounded by the buzz of excited cast members, Karalyn Joseph was busy last week making dreams come true.

At 17, Joseph is directing a production of “Seussical, Jr.” featuring young adult actors with special needs. Some of them have stage experience, but some have never been in front of an audience before. The show, which will be staged from July 28 to 30 at Willowdale Chapel in Kennett Square, is the first production of the Community of Actors with Special Needs Theatre (CAST). As the founder and leader of a brand-new company with some brand-new actors, Joseph is dealing with a thousand details of props, costumes and who stands where – all while keeping an eye on the future.

The cast of 'Seussical, Jr.,' with 17-year-old director Karalyn Joseph (center).

 Joseph will begin her senior year at Unionville High School in August, so college plans are being made. But CAST is such a great idea that she can already see herself returning next summer to helm another show. Fortunately, she's accustomed to the life of the theater.

“I started out as a dancer for 15 years at Cecil Dance Company in Maryland,” Joseph said before rehearsal started on July 7. “The company did theatrical dance performances, but with no speaking. You learned to tell the story through your body. That got me into the acting side of things. When I was 11 or 12, my mom said I should audition for 'The Sound of Music' at Delaware Children's Theatre. She played Maria and I played Louisa. I absolutely loved it. I completely fell in love with the theater.”

With a solid dance background and ongoing vocal training, Joseph has been in more than 30 shows, filling major roles at Millburn Stone Theatre, the Delaware Children's Theatre and elsewhere. At Unionville High School, she has had the starring roles in “West Side Story” and “Shrek The Musical.”

Her path to forming CAST began when she took part in the summer theater productions put on at the Jennersville YMCA. One of her fellow cast members was a boy with special needs. “The first show I did there, you could tell he was kind of coming out of his shell a little bit,” Joseph said. “By the end, he would come up and yell a line of the show in greeting, and you'd have to know exactly what the next line was – whether it was your character or not. That was how he had learned to communicate, and I thought that was incredible.”

Joseph's family attends Willowdale, so last February, she volunteered to help at the Night to Shine prom event for special-needs youth that was held at the church. “By some chance, I was placed in the karaoke room, and it was great to watch these people get up with this amazing enthusiasm, and everybody's cheering each other on,” she said. “I have to give my mom credit, though. I came home and she said, 'Wouldn't it be neat if they could do a theater show together? You should do that.' I said, 'No, I could never do that.' But she ended up giving me a push.”

There was a grant available for community service projects through Willowdale, so the time seemed right for Joseph to take the plunge.

“I admit I have no experience in dealing with people who have special needs, but I have an open heart and I'm willing to listen,” Joseph said with a smile. “I'm extremely grateful that people have been open to me about all this.”

“Seussical, Jr.” is the first show she has directed.

“When in doubt, I think about what Bambi Johnson, who runs things at Millburn Stone Theatre, would do,” she said. “She's so incredibly patient with everybody. I just think, 'What would Bambi do?' and go from there. It's been a lot less stressful than I expected. I mean, it's been stressful, but everybody comes in with an amazing attitude and they're always ready to work.”

No one was turned down at auditions, and the cast has grown to include 15 young people. There are several helpers who work with the actors on learning lines and making their entrances at the right time. Some of the cast members attend the Vanguard School and have done some shows there. But one cast member came to auditions not intending to try out. After being gently coached by Joseph, he ended up landing the large role of Horton the Elephant.

Joseph has two mentors by her side – Nance Weber and Deanne Lafferty – who give her advice on directing, and on working with special-needs youth. Weber has extensive theater experience, and Deanne is the head of Willowdale's special-needs ministry. “It's been great to have them working alongside me and help me learn as I go along, especially with the financial side of things that I don't have the experience in,” Joseph said.

The show is being staged at the comfortable, well-equipped chapel at Willowdale, with about 200 seats for each performance. Joseph is cautiously optimistic of a big turnout for the production, which is both a blessing and a worry. She's thinking about having a preview performance that will give the cast some experience with a live audience and soothe any jittery nerves.

“We've been rehearsing two days a week, and for the most part we've been done blocking the show for two weeks now,” Joseph said. “It was quicker than I thought. They all picked it up. It's been awesome to watch some of the people grow. There's one boy who refused to do any dance movements at first, and now he's up there doing it, and seems to be enjoying it. So it's been fun.”

Joseph's wide range of contacts with area theaters has resulted in her being offered props and costumes from other productions of “Seussical,” and her confidence is paying off. Before the rehearsal last Thursday, she patiently answered questions but left no doubt who was in charge as she gathered the cast to run the show. Picking up the lines of a cast member who wasn't at rehearsal, she stepped on and off the stage with her script in hand, then returned to her seat to watch and take notes. The cast members hit their marks and sang with gusto, clearly happy to be performing – even for an empty house.

“I'd love to come back next year,” Joseph said. “It's good that it's in the summer, because I'll be able to come back to keep it going. But I also wanted something that wasn't just a summer program. I would like to offer acting classes and workshops and field trips to local theaters during the year, and then do a production in the summer. I have feeling it's going to continue.”

“Seussical, Jr.” will be staged at Willowdale Chapel (675 Unionville Rd., Kennett Square) on July 28 and 29 at 7 p.m., and July 30 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $10 in advance or at the door. Visit www.castheatre.org for more information.

To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, email jchambless@chestercounty.com.

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