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Inclusive production of ‘Starlight Express’ took a spin into JoCo arts center

Tour the cultural heart of Johnson County at the new Arts & Heritage Center

Take a tour of the new Johnson County Arts and Heritage Center, which is located in the former the King Louie building. For years, a bowling alley and ice skating rink, it has been transformed into a museum, live performance theater, dance studio
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Take a tour of the new Johnson County Arts and Heritage Center, which is located in the former the King Louie building. For years, a bowling alley and ice skating rink, it has been transformed into a museum, live performance theater, dance studio

In Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Starlight Express,” the cast is usually on roller skates. For the Spinning Tree Theater’s inclusive summer camp production, everyone was still on wheels, but there was a little more variety. A mixture of scooters, Rollerblades, wheelchairs and other “wheels” rolled across the stage to the beat of the music.

The theater teamed up with Variety KC, the Children’s Charity, to offer kids the chance to be in a show, regardless of any disabilities. It’s Spinning Tree’s first in its new home at the Johnson County Arts and Heritage Center, as well as being its first theater camp.

“We basically said, ‘What if took this show and let everyone move the way they can move?’ We really wanted to work with what they had,” said Michael Grayman-Parkhurst, artistic director and co-founder of Spinning Tree.

The production ran June 21 through 23.

Grayman-Parkhurst said it was important to not only provide an environment that was accessible, but to have a mixture of kids, and not make it a strictly special-needs camp. Sixteen performers took the stage for the production.

“The idea is to all work together and not feel like this person’s in the background. Everyone’s being staged together,” he said.

On the theme of inclusion, the kids learned sign language for an entire song in the production, even though no participants in the show are deaf.

“We’re adapting the show to go to an all-inclusive level; it’s amazing,” said 11-year-old Mauriel Fields of Kansas City.

Olathe resident Aubrey May, 13, was a munchkin in a production of the Wizard of Oz with Spinning Tree last year. In this production, she played Buffy the Buffet Car.

“It’s probably the biggest role I’ve had, with lots of singing,” she said.

Aubrey doesn’t let her congenital muscular dystrophy get in the way of doing theater.

“I was like, ‘You know what? I’ll fit right in,’” she said of her wheelchair for “Starlight Express.”

“Nobody really looks at me in a different way, especially because everybody’s on wheels.”

When actress Ali Stroker, who uses a wheelchair, won a Tony earlier in June, Aubrey was watching.

“I thought she had an amazing speech. It’s what I live for. That’s what I want to show everyone with the experience of ‘Starlight Express,’” she said.

Although the production was all about adaptation and being inclusive, it was also a lot of work for everyone. Mounting a musical in two weeks is no easy task, and everyone was up for some hard work.

“It really broadens your mind. These kids do the same amount as we are,” said 15-year-old Maggie Herber of Leawood.

“We try to establish a safe environment, where there’s honesty, and we’re challenging them. We’re not going to patronize the Variety kids,” said Andrew Grayman-Parkhurst, managing director and co-founder of Spinning Tree and Michael’s spouse. “It still feels like a professional production.”

He said the theater has already booked the space to be able to offer the camp again for the next two summers.

Ann Dugan of Overland Park came to see her daughter, 14-year-old Libby Dugan, rehearse with the group. Libby, who has Beckwith-Weidman syndrome, loves to be part of the theater.

“They’re doing a beautiful job. The kids can be who they are and just enjoy it,” Dugan said.

Sometimes, the experience does get too overwhelming for Libby, and Dugan said she appreciated the accommodations available in the production.

“Michael and Andy have arranged for one of the girls to hold her hand, so that makes it easier for her,” she said.

That’s no big deal for Libby’s fellow actors.

“When she gets up on that stage, she’s extra happy and a joy,” Mauriel said.

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