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Curtain calling: Special-needs actors to live dreams

Four teens with special needs will act in an Oregon Shakespeare Festival musical in 2019 — thanks to a friendship that grew between a director and an Ashland boy with cerebral palsy.

OSF director Christopher Liam Moore got to know Luke Hogan Laurenson, 14, through Project UP, a performing arts program that brings special-needs students together with peer and community volunteers.

When OSF was looking for an upbeat musical to stage in its Angus Bowmer Theatre during the 2019 season, Moore thought of the musical “Hairspray.”

Set in 1962, “Hairspray” portrays a white, plus-sized girl and black teens who run into barriers when they try to win spots on a local television dance show. The teens use their wits, fancy dance steps and newfound friendships to integrate the show.

“This musical is all about the power of music and the power of dance to transform prejudice, to transform bias, to transform a life,” Moore said.

He naturally thought of Luke. Doctors had predicted Luke would never walk or talk, but he’s been able to get out of his wheelchair and dance thanks to intensive neuromotor therapy and the infectious music of pop star Taylor Swift.

“I don’t know anybody in my life for whom music means as much — and the ability to dance and express yourself through dance is so profound,” Moore said. “And, I thought, ‘He has to be in the show.’ And it’s the reason I now want to do this show — so Luke Laurenson can dance on the stage of the Bowmer.”

Mention the director’s name to Luke and the Ashland Middle School student immediately breaks into a big smile.

“I love him so much,” said Luke, who then wrote out the same message using his nose on an iPad attached to his wheelchair.

Either during pregnancy or childbirth, Luke didn’t get enough oxygen. His brain and body have trouble communicating with each other, making it hard for him to speak and control his movements.

But that hasn’t stopped him from dancing, either in his wheelchair or on his feet. Luke starred in a fundraising dance video with Ashland firefighters, plus another one with students and OSF actors. In May, he went to a Taylor Swift concert and met his idol backstage. Through a GoFundMe account, his family is continuing to raise money for his medical expenses that aren't covered by insurance.

Asked what he expects from his role in the OSF musical, Luke wrote, “The time of my life.”

Jane Hogan, Luke’s mom, said she never expected Moore to ask special-needs teens to appear in “Hairspray.”

“It’s a miracle. When you have a child with special needs, there are so many challenges. And to have something so miraculous come forward for these guys, it’s just incredible,” she said.

Working for OSF is a dream come true for Zahra Detweiler, an 18-year-old Ashland High School graduate with Down syndrome. When she was in elementary school, her teacher asked the class what everyone wanted to be when they were adults.

“I just told her that I wanted to be an actress when I grew up,” she recalled.

A Project UP participant with amateur plays under her belt, Zahra is a triple-threat.

“I like acting. I like dancing. And I also like singing,” said Zahra, who has already memorized some of the “Hairspray” songs and can knock out dance steps from past performances.

“Hairspray” rehearsals will kick off Jan. 15, with preview performances March 2 and 6. Opening night is March 9, and the musical will run for the entire season, closing out Oct. 27.

“She’ll tell you it’s been her dream to be a professional actor since she was 7,” Moore said of Zahra. “And why shouldn’t she have that opportunity to do that? So she’s going to be a professional actor starting on Jan. 15.”

Linda Detweiler, Zahra’s mom, said she has always wanted to nurture her daughter’s dream, but as a parent, she wondered if it was realistic.

“So for us, this was an amazing opportunity for her that we didn’t know if it would ever come true for her. And he’ll never know how much that means to us as her parents to see her have this opportunity to reach her dreams,” Detweiler said of the director.

She said the performing arts have been an ideal way for Zahra to develop confidence, make friends and improve her speaking skills and physical coordination.

“In a sense, it was therapy without doing therapy,” Detweiler said.

The four special-needs teens will split the “Hairspray” performances, with two appearing each time. That schedule will allow them to get through the long, grueling season while keeping up with other responsibilities such as school, work and physical therapy.

OSF has had actors with disabilities in past plays, including adults who are deaf or in wheelchairs.

This is the first time the festival will have four youth performers coping with Down syndrome, cerebral palsy or autism.

Moore said he’s heard the criticism from some who say OSF is just trying to check off boxes when it comes to different types of disability and diversity.

“And honestly, it never crossed my mind to check off a box about this. It was about these inspirational young people and wanting them to have a chance to be in a show,” he said.

As a camp counselor during his own teen years, Moore directed special-needs kids in a “Wizard of Oz” play, and he’s also been a Project UP mentor.

“But I’m by no means an expert. And what I keep saying to everybody is, ‘We’re all going to learn together, and we’re all going to make mistakes about how to do this — because OSF has never done this before,’” he said.

Moore said everyone at OSF has enthusiastically embraced the endeavor, from the set and costume designers to the choreographer to administrators. The stage and set, for example, will have ramps to be wheelchair-accessible.

Beowulf Rochlen, father to 17-year-old Oriana Rochlen, said even before Moore invited his daughter and three other teens to be in the musical, OSF was welcoming to those with disabilities. Oriana, who has cerebral palsy and is in a wheelchair, found it easy to get around when she attended a performance of “Beauty and the Beast” there.

Rochlen said he’s been impressed by OSF’s desire to accommodate the teen actors.

“They’re doing everything possible to make it work and to have the foundation for kids who need additional supports to be involved and to work as professional actors,” he said. “And I think it’s really inspiring.”

Although some adaptations are being made, much of Moore’s job will remain the same.

“With any actor who’s in a show, your job as a director is to work with what that actor brings to the table,” he said.

Some actors are impeccably trained with long resumes. Others have less formal training and are known for their big personalities, Moore said.

He said he plans to be accepting of the abilities the teens bring to rehearsals, while also gently pushing and guiding them to expand in ways they didn’t think were possible.

Walker Hill, an 18-year-old Ashland High School student with autism, confessed he’s a bit nervous about appearing in “Hairspray,” even though he’s performed in a long string of school plays.

But the young fan of The Beatles and The Beach Boys said he’s looking forward to seeing his friends and being in the musical.

Moore said it’s fine if Walker is more shy than some of the other performers. That will make the high school depicted in “Hairspray” a more accurate representation of the range of personalities in a real high school.

Lisa Tschudi, Oriana’s mom, said watching the musical will be a good opportunity for audience members to find out more about people with disabilities, especially because they are rarely seen in plays, television shows and movies.

“It would be wonderful if this opened up opportunities for others in the future,” Tschudi said. “It would be amazing if this were to lead to more people with disabilities being seen.”

Moore said that lack of visibility contributes to the discomfort many people feel when they encounter those with disabilities.

Even well-intentioned, big-hearted people sometimes stiffen up when they meet someone with a disability. They’re afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing, he noted.

“If there is anybody uncomfortable watching these young people in the show, my hope is that by the end of the show, you’ll see these young people dancing and singing as part of this huge ensemble, and that will go away,” Moore said.

He said everyone, from grandparents to little kids, will enjoy the musical. The cast includes other local students and recent graduates, as well as many adult comedic actors who have been long-time favorites of OSF audiences.

“Every song is fantastic. The dancing is going to be absolutely out of this world,” he predicted.

Ultimately, Moore said, one of theater’s greatest powers is to reflect the world as it is and as it could be. If even one special-needs child sees Luke on stage as the hero and role model that he is, Moore said OSF and the cast members will have done their jobs.

“Nothing else matters,” he said.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.

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