Musical ‘Boundless’ puts spotlight on disabled

Cheryl Hampson, of Claymont, rehearses with the cast of “Boundless.” She plays a lead role in the musical, which opens tonight at Dover High School, and participated in the 2003 march for the disabled, which the play depicts. (Special to the Delaware State News./Gary Emeigh)

DOVER – “Boundless,” a first-of-its-kind musical displaying the strides individuals with disabilities have made throughout recent history and within their personal lives will take the Dover High stage this weekend.

Headed up by the Governor’s Advisory Council for Exceptional Citizens (GACEC) — a state advocacy organization for individuals living with disabilities — “Boundless” is a production more than a year in the making.

GACEC does an education and advocacy campaign every year, but this is the first time the organization has undertaken something as involved as a play.

“We had this idea, but had to reach out to find people who could write and direct and we were lucky enough to find the absolute best director (Don Lonski) and writer (George Purefoy Tilson),” said Wendy Strauss, executive director of the GACEC. “They’ve generously donated their time over the past year and contributed to an experience that everyone involved will remember forever.”

Audition process

GACEC decided from the beginning that they wanted the play to be completely original and unique as the actors within it. During the audition, the complete script and score had yet to be completed.

“We know that the show would deal with a lot of serious issues but we needed to keep it entertaining but meaningful at the same time so we actually incorporated personal stories from many of the actors into the script,” said writer Mr. Tilson. “So going in without a complete script was really beneficial to the final product.”

In 2003, 200 people with disabilities and their advocates marched from Philadelphia to Wilmington, through central Delaware, west to Baltimore and finally to the U.S. Capitol to demand their rights as citizens, to be full members of their communities, and to end the practice of shutting people away in facilities. During the two-week journey, they blocked traffic for 144 miles and camped along the way.

“Boundless” takes the audience on the trek and combines the recollected stories of Delawareans with disabilities and the sometimes difficult history of the struggle to ensure dignity and justice for all.

For the casting call, GACEC reached out to all of the theater groups in Delaware, school systems, special needs organizations and even counselors to spread the word and reach as many potential participants as possible.

Six-year-old DeClan McCaffrey and Olivia Climie, 10, sprint around the stage during rehearsal last week.

And the casting call came with one condition — everyone who auditioned would receive a role.

“I think for so many of the performers, that was a huge comfort and made them so much more comfortable,” said Phyllis Gibert, grandmother of 18-year-old Tyler. “A lot of these people may have wanted to audition for a play in school.
But it’s so competitive, they may have been too intimidated to even audition at all.”

Others have participated in plays in the past but fitting roles have been hard to come by.

“She has always had a dream of being an actress but she’s really struggled with getting parts because she has learning disabilities, which make reading and memorizing the script difficult. She just has a hard time keeping up,” said Julia Gianguilio, mother of 16-year-old Saige. “So an accommodating environment like this has been great for her along with all the other actors.”

Rehearsal

Rehearsal began in February with the cast of 32 actors between the ages of 6 and 70, all with varying types and degrees of disabilities.

The musical’s director Mr. Lonski has been involved in theater for decades but never worked with an all-disabled or special needs cast before.

“The main way I approached this project was with the mindset of treating the actors like they don’t have a disability,” he said. “When we are at rehearsal, we are all peers and comfortable with each other so we just maintain that peer relationship throughout the whole process.”

And the theme of the play, living and thriving despite disability, is something everyone in the show can relate to, making it a very personal experience for all of the actors and their families.

“While first and foremost we want the show to be entertaining, we want people to be moved by a message presented by actors to the best of their abilities,” Mr. Tilson said.\

From left, Jillian Matthews, Saige Snavely and Laura Scott sit around a makeshift campfire in a scene from “Boundless.”

And the actors are working their hardest, pulling off a script, songs and dances up to par with any theatrical performance.

“We did not want to reduce the show to something very basic, on an elementary level,” Mr. Tilson said. “We want to show that these are adults who can be successful at achieving their goals, and honestly every single actor has risen to the occasion.”

Many of the actors are used to smaller group environments than what a full stage production involves but all have adapted well, organizers say.

“It’s different for everyone but Laura actually thrives in a group environment,” said Susan Scott, mother of the 34-year-old actor. “She’s been so excited about making new friends, especially.”

Performers like Laura have helped coax others out of their shell and made them comfortable and more social.

“Saige suffers from a lot of anxiety and to see her become more social during rehearsal and around all these new people that have become real friends to her has been amazing,” Ms. Gianguilio said.

No differences

Mr. Lonski said that although the cast members have disabilities, the rehearsal process has been no different than any high school performance he’s directed.

“We have the exact same pitfalls and struggles any cast has. It’s really like putting on any other play,” he said. “And just like any other actor or aspiring actor, when you provide the opportunity for them to do what they love, they will try their hardest and rise to the occasion.”

“He took this play about disability and wrote it around their abilities,” said Susan Guariano, mother of 19-year-old Marissa.

And she, like many of the actors’ family members, has been in total awe of how the cast has managed to rise to the occasion.

“I am always worried that (Marissa) will forget her lines,” Ms. Guariano said. “We rehearse together and I feed her lines so I thought she would need me or someone else to feed her lines at rehearsal and she remembers them now and knows her lines just as well as anyone else.”

Don Lonski directs a cast of 32 actors in the musical “Boundless.”

“Don (Lonski) got injured a couple weeks ago and everyone had to take a little more responsibility at rehearsal and I just couldn’t believe it when Saige stood up and said ‘Hey, this is what I think we are supposed to do, this is what you’re supposed to say,’” Ms. Giangiolo said. “I just couldn’t believe that she took a leadership role like that. I know it takes a lot of courage to do something like that and I was just amazed.”

Tabatha Harris has seen her 22-year-old daughter Toni do things she never imagined.

“She’s always loved to sing and dance at home but I never thought it’s something I’d see her do on stage,” Ms. Harris said. “She’s shy but has been able to open up, not just with family support, but with the support of everyone in the play.”

Mr. Tilson said individuals with disabilities often become the most isolated members of society so allowing them to thrive among peers is one of the greatest benefits of putting the show together.

Long trips

Many of the actors have aged out of school, and have since had difficulty being fulfilled socially, but the play has been able to serve for a social outlet.

“There are a lot of reasons it’s difficult for people with disabilities to remain socially connected after school but one of the main reasons is they depend on their families so much, especially when it comes to transportation,” Ms. Mathews said. Her daughter Jillian is 23 years old.

Becki Polk rehearses a scene from “Boundless” with DeClan McCaffrey.

But all of the parents and caregivers of the actors in “Boundless” have made a major commitment to transporting their actors to and from rehearsal over the past year. Participants come from all over the state with some driving more than an hour each way, multiple times a week for rehearsal.

“We are from Claymont, so it’s nearly three hours round trip, but we’ve been putting that time to good use,” said Ms. Gilbert. “It’s gives us time to practice and work out issues. Tyler lost his father not too long ago so that time we get to spend together to talk, it’s been invaluable.”

The time commitment families have had to make transporting their kids to and from rehearsal has proven that Delaware needs more transportation options available for those who don’t or can’t drive. Ms. Strauss said seeing the difficulties families face first hand at rehearsal helps GACEC’s advocacy efforts.

Rewarding experience

But for all of the families and caregivers, seeing the strides their actor has made and the confidence they’ve gained has been worth every minute of the commute.

Mr. Lonski and Mr. Tilson have also worked their hardest to make sure that all the actors have a positive and memorable experience and chance to grow.

Tyler Snavely goes over his lines during rehearsal for the musical play “Boundless.”

Mr. Tilson has worked with individuals with special needs for nearly five decades, starting as a special education teacher before becoming an educational consultant for disabled and marginalized individuals.

Although the play focuses on people who have struggled with disabilities whether visible, or not, all viewers will be able to relate in one way or another.

“I think this isn’t just about people currently living with disabilities. As people get older, we all become disabled in some way, whether it’s having to use a walker to get around or needing a hearing aid. So everyone watching is bound to be connected with someone with a disability and is likely to have a disability of their own in the future,” Ms. Gilbert said.

“Boundless” will be performed at the Dover High School Theater off Del. 8 tonight at 7 and Saturday at noon and 5 p.m.

Tickets are free and may be reserved in advance at boundlessmusical.eventbrite.com.

Ashton Brown is a freelance writer living in Dover.

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