Winnipeg Free Press

Soul music

Grant Park students overcome incredible life challenges in commitment to performance

Students living with cognitive and physical disabilities deliver a splashy musical triumph of courage and determination

It’s a wintry January afternoon, but Graham is dressed for the water.

Wearing a sailor uniform, the Grant Park High School student peers through the curtain at the Gas Station Theatre and excitedly turns to rejoin the others.

"My entire family is here," he says with a huge grin.

His classmates are a nervous bunch. Willy could barely sleep the night before. Allison usually can eat a fair amount of pizza, but today she couldn’t finish one slice. But, like Graham, they are buzzing with excitement.

Graham takes one last peek through the curtain and exclaims: "The place is filled!"

Graham, in a sailor suit costume, peeks out from behind curtains at the audience before the start of The Little Mermaid musical at the Gas Station Theatre. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

Graham, in a sailor suit costume, peeks out from behind curtains at the audience before the start of The Little Mermaid musical at the Gas Station Theatre. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

 

Musicals are a major rite of passage for many high school students. But at Grant Park — twice a year — they are minor miracles.

These aren’t students in Grant Park’s lauded performing arts track. They are all students living with special needs, the ones in the Life Skills program who spend much of their days in programs that are designed to help them succeed at school and in life after their education years come to an end.

Many tread the boards in wheelchairs. Others need walkers. Delivering lines is a challenge for some. A few can’t speak at all.

But together — and before them an almost decade-long line of former students — they have performed musicals such as Beauty and the Beast, Annie and Seussical. On this day — Jan. 17 — it’s The Little Mermaid, in front of a packed house in Osborne Village.

It’s the final stop on a seven-month journey for the Free Press, closely following these students and this production: from choosing the show to auditions, from designing costumes to untold hours of practice at school and home, from dress rehearsal to final curtain call.

All the world’s a stage, someone named William Shakespeare once wrote; getting to this one is quite an accomplishment for these kids. For students facing significant challenges in their daily lives, making good on this commitment means a lot of hard work. And acceptance and love from people around them.

When it all comes together, it is a marvel.

John Bracken, head of Grant Park High School’s Inclusion Support Department, says it an honour to be part of Grant Park High Schools stage production. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

John Bracken, head of Grant Park High School’s Inclusion Support Department, says it an honour to be part of Grant Park High Schools stage production. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

"There’s something magical that happens on stage," says John Bracken, who heads Grant Park’s inclusion support department, formerly known as special education. More than 100 students are enrolled, living with both cognitive challenges, such as Down syndrome and autism to physical ones, such as cerebral palsy.

"For me, these students are doing something bigger than themselves... and for the parents, you see smiles and tears the entire time. It’s an honour to be part of it."

Theatre is an art form that uses stories, performed on stage in a live setting, to entertain, to provoke and to inspire. For a time and place it brings people together.

Steven Schipper knows this. As artistic director of Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, he oversees the province’s largest theatre. He is in the audience for The Little Mermaid, as he was for a previous production.

Whether performing at RMTC, on Broadway, London’s West End or clearing challenging hurdles on a January afternoon at the Gas Station Theatre, they all share a common bond, he says.

"They've been humbling experiences and inspiring ones at the same time,' says Steven Schipper, artistic director of Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

"They've been humbling experiences and inspiring ones at the same time,' says Steven Schipper, artistic director of Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

"The first time I saw one of these very special shows I was deeply moved," Schipper says.

"They’ve been humbling experiences and inspiring ones at the same time. And to some degree, an affirmation of the power and potential of live theatre. Now, why humbling? Because we, who work in this profession, we strive to create the same kind of magic that these wonderful young people seem to do so effortlessly when I saw their play.

"Inspiring because there was a mutual joy wafting between the artists and aides on stage and the audience. I couldn’t tell who was happier, but I know that the entire theatre was filled with pure joy.

"And affirming because this is what plays and our art form, theatre, can accomplish. It can bring people of disparate abilities from all walks of life (together). And although the stories we tell are usually about conflict and what makes each of us different, what’s happening is we’re building bridges between people based on what we all have in common."

Former Grant Park choral director Jenna Larsen, who is now the Winnipeg School Division’s performing arts consultant. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

Former Grant Park choral director Jenna Larsen, who is now the Winnipeg School Division’s performing arts consultant. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

Former Grant Park choral director Janna Larsen, who is now the Winnipeg School Division’s performing arts consultant, says she believes the students are breaking ground in North America.

"Parents are completely overwhelmed at what their children do. I get tears every year," she says.

"The Winnipeg School Division strives for equity for all learners — equity not meaning the ‘same’ education from school to school or program to program — but rather programs that meet the diverse needs of the student population," she says.

"I believe what makes this program so unique is that the shows are custom-made to fit the talents and abilities of the students; it showcases each student’s abilities."

 

 

Act 1

 
What happens on stage may be magic, but it really all starts in a small, narrow office just a couple of doors down from where students learn to repair vehicles with wrenches and heavy equipment.

School is winding down and most students are taking their last classes before final exams. Summer vacation is almost here.

Even though it is mid-June, Larsen is looking ahead to January and is in the process of finding a suitable production. There will be a second musical performed in June 2017, but that will be determined months from now.

This preparatory work begins at the end of a busy year for Larsen. She has produced eight shows, two of them with the Life Skills students.

"We do musicals because music seems to be something that really connects people," she says. "It creates community... (and) the kids are so happy and excited to be on stage and show their parents what they can do."

Larsen sifts through songbooks with some possibilities: Guys and DollCinderellaFiddler on the RoofLes Miserables.

"We’ve never done Les Miz… but I’m not sure a musical where people die in it would be appropriate," she says, laughing. "Generally we usually take lighter shows."

Larsen has produced eight shows, two of them with the Life Skills students. (Tyler Walsh / Winnipeg Free Press)

Larsen has produced eight shows, two of them with the Life Skills students. (Tyler Walsh / Winnipeg Free Press)

She won’t begin matching students to roles until school resumes in September.

"We try to showcase the abilities of the students and not the disabilities," she says. "We don’t know who might be a new student at the school. I think ahead (about) who can take on certain roles, and then I see who is in the classroom and make a list again."

Larsen says mounting a production is a learning experience for educational assistants. EAs are matched to individual students for the year and help them to not only learn and complete assignments, but also to work with them through physio and occupational therapies and, in some cases, feed and change them.

Previous shows by the Grant Park class include Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  (Kevin Rollason / Winnipeg Free Press)

Previous shows by the Grant Park class include Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. (Kevin Rollason / Winnipeg Free Press)

"I don’t think any of them are told ahead of time they are going to be singing and dancing on stage," Larsen says with a laugh. "They have a blast, but for some of them this is a mind-blowing experience for them.

"Twenty-nine EAs in a room doing choreography with 29 students is really something."

The program now has eight years and 16 shows under its belt, beginning with a stripped-down production of The Wizard of Oz, produced in the small room next to Larsen’s office. Parents sat on the risers choral students stood on.

"There were only nine students and eight EAs and they pretty much stood in place — there was little movement," she says. "It had six songs. It was small, but beautiful.

"We knew then it had the possibility of growing."

"We do musicals because music seems to be something that really connects people," Larsen says. (Tyler Walsh / Winnipeg Free Press)

"We do musicals because music seems to be something that really connects people," Larsen says. (Tyler Walsh / Winnipeg Free Press)

The nine cast members have all graduated — the last one in 2015. Life Skills students can continue at the school until age 21.

By their third show, the students had outgrown the choral room and took over the school’s basement cafeteria for the day. In the last couple of years, the musicals have been performed at the Gas Station Theatre.

The productions are trimmer versions of the musicals and they use scripts appropriate for junior-age students. A CD provides the accompanying score for the performers’ voices. 

Larsen says she modifies the script further to adapt it to individual students. It’s a process that can play out up until the show itself. It could mean that the role of Belle, in Beauty and the Beast, becomes a non-speaking role if the student who gets the part is non-verbal, but can move around. Or a male part can become a female part. Or one role may become a part shared by three students.

"We want everyone to have their moment," she says.

After several weeks of searching and sifting and with only two days of school before summer, it’s time for Larsen to hold the Big Reveal.

Nearly two dozen special-needs students file into one of the classrooms and watch as Larsen begins flipping through a series of flash cards. They follow along, reading aloud. There is cheering and applause when they learn they’ll be bringing Disney’s The Little Mermaid to life in January.

Allison is buzzing with excitement for the curtain to open on this year's musical. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

Allison is buzzing with excitement for the curtain to open on this year's musical. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

Allison, who lives with cerebral palsy and uses a motorized wheelchair to get around, says Mermaid’s central character, Ariel, is one of her favourites.

"I like the songs. I sing to them pretty good," she says haltingly, and then breaks into Under the Sea.

Yeram is from Korea and English is her second language. But she moves with rhythm and has already been featured in past musicals.

"I love to dance," she admits shyly. "I’ve seen (The Little Mermaid) here before, and I’ve seen it on TV, and I’ve seen it on the computer… the mermaid is my favourite character… and her sisters."

She hops out of her seat and completes a single spin along with some arm movements.

Jackson settles into a chair and nonchalantly says with a drawl he has "no real opinion yet" about Larsen’s choice.

English is Yeram's second language, but she's already been featured in past 
musicals. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

English is Yeram's second language, but she's already been featured in past musicals. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

"I don’t really care. I care when I’m performing. I saw the movie when I was younger. I didn’t really have an opinion back then, either. I haven’t really decided yet."

Larsen says during casting she’ll also take advantage of the fact that — spoiler alert — the main character, Ariel, has a wonderful voice at the beginning and at the end of the story, but in between she loses the ability to sing because she bargains it away for the ability to walk and live on land. It is a perfect two-person role in a program where many of the students are non-verbal.

"I’ll have two Ariels. An Ariel who can talk and sing and then another who is non-verbal and then back to the other."

She’ll be a familiar sight at Value Village and other second-hand clothing stores over the summer, hunting for costumes. Or so she thought.

She sends out a text message early in July: she’s taking on a new position, overseeing performing arts across Winnipeg School Division. For the first time, the Life Skills performing arts program’s founder won’t produce the show.

"However my heart belongs to the programming at Grant Park and it will forever be my ‘home,’" Larsen writes in the text. "This only just happened and I wish I could have had a time to say goodbye for now with the wonderful students."

 

Act 2

 
Grant Park’s new choral and musical theatre instructor is also a new teacher.

Ashley Fredette recently graduated from the University of Manitoba’s education program, having previously received her bachelor of music in vocal performance and music education at Canadian Mennonite University.

And, not to worry, the show will go on. The Little Mermaid hits the stage Jan. 17, just over four months away.

Ashley Fredette takes the Life Skills students through the first reading of The Little Mermaid. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

Ashley Fredette takes the Life Skills students through the first reading of The Little Mermaid. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

In late September, Fredette starts the class with the West African welcoming song Funga Alafia, before beginning some movement exercises and singing songs from The Little Mermaid.

Until the students are bused to the theatre for the final rehearsal and performance, the choral room will serve as home base. There are numerous music- and entertainment-related posters on the walls, including the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Elvis Presley and the Brady Bunch.

Fredette says auditions will be held during the next class and before saying goodbye, leads them through Carol Burnett’s signature television sign-off song. "I’m so glad we had this time together..."

• • •

Two days later auditions begin. Fredette takes notes from her perch on the risers.

First up, Allison, who moves her wheelchair forward. Song choice? Kiss the Girl. The music begins and Allison sings, sometimes a bit behind, but she catches up with great emphasis on some of the words, accompanied by a huge smile.

Graham follows with Under the Sea, the choice of six other hopefuls. Part of Your World is another popular choice.

"I’m so proud of every one of you," Fredette says at the end.

Ashley Fredette (centre) takes the Life Skills students through the first reading of The Little Mermaid.  (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

Ashley Fredette (centre) takes the Life Skills students through the first reading of The Little Mermaid. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

Two days after that, 16 students learn they’ve been selected for speaking roles and another six find out they’ll participate in the chorus.

"Wherever I put you is where I think you are going to shine," Fredette tells them.

Yeram will play the voiceless Ariel; another young woman will sing Ariel’s part.

"I like being on stage," says Joshua, cast as Sebastian the Crab. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

"I like being on stage," says Joshua, cast as Sebastian the Crab. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

Jackson is King Triton, Joshua gets Sebastian the crab, Graham is Flounder the fish and Leo is Prince Eric.

"I like being on stage," says Joshua who, at times, is more ham than crab.  "I like it when people are cheering me. It makes me feel cool."

It is said that some of the best roles in Disney movies are the villains, and while she had her heart set on playing Ariel, Allison is thrilled to get the part of Ursula, the sea witch.

"I’m happy," she says. "She takes (Ariel’s) voice. I’m looking forward to it."

Most of the students will play double roles. No matter what other roles they play, the young women will also be Ariel’s mer-sisters, while the guys will also double as sailors. Sarah and Abby, another girl who uses a wheelchair, will be Ariel’s sisters in some scenes before trading their dresses and becoming Ursula’s hench-eels.

The students in the chorus, including Mary, Waverley, Hope, Rexella, Lexi, and Isabel, are a mixture of non-verbal, low cognitive and high physical challenges. The teachers have plans to outfit them in various costumes to portray turtles, fish and jellyfish.

"It is all about which kids are verbal enough to sing and say their lines," Fredette says after the class leaves.

"I had to give some multiple parts. We’ll have simple costume changes."

Students get their first look at the script for The Little Mermaid.  (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

Students get their first look at the script for The Little Mermaid. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

As the students file into the room with their EAs on Oct. 4, Fredette tells them they will be running through the songs and doing a table read of their lines.

"You have your part in your script," she says. "This is just to get to know our Little Mermaid script.

"And if you and your EA can promise to keep it super safe, I’ll let you take your script with you."

Fredette says the students will spend about 50 per cent of their time in class learning the songs and script, and continue either at home or during other times of the school day with their educational assistants.

"Some students will have to work hard to learn their lines," she says. "They’re all dedicated to the play. It’s really nice to see how happy they are with their roles."

• • •

In early November in another part of the school, sewing teacher Kari-lin Watt and her students are hard at work putting together costumes for the musical. Watt holds up a mermaid’s tail.

"Two students made that yesterday in one class," she says. "They are brand new and neither speaks English, but they did this."

Pulling out some pieces for other costumes — such as the chest muscles for King Triton, the royal suit for Prince Eric — Watt notes the music teacher got a great deal on them at 75-per-cent-off post-Halloween sales.

"Sometimes it is cheaper to buy than to make," she says.

Sewing teacher Kari-lin Watt looks over some of the donated prom dresses for possible use.  (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Sewing teacher Kari-lin Watt looks over some of the donated prom dresses for possible use. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

Whether the costumes are for a fish, a crab, a prince or a mermaid, the trick is not just to make them, but also to make sure the students will be able to wear them.

"The students have special needs and we have to think what we could and couldn’t do," she says.

Watt holds up a bright yellow-and-blue coloured fish costume. It’s Flounder, looking like he just stepped out of the movie.

Sewing students work on The Little Mermaid costumes.  (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

Sewing students work on The Little Mermaid costumes. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

Grade 12 student Brynn Wiens produced Flounder and the tentacles for Allison’s Ursula costume. The tentacles will spill over the sides of her wheelchair.

"The fish took forever to make," Wiens says. "There were changes and it was hard to go through the layers of fabric."

Watt says the student portraying Flounder will step into the top of the costume and then suspenders will be added to hold it in place.

"That’s easy," she says with a smile. "Another time I’d been making a costume and then Ashley (Fredette) says, ‘Oh yeah, that student is in a wheelchair.’ I said, ‘Well, that’s good to know.

"It has been challenging to find what works for their bodies."

• • •

There are big smiles in the class on Nov. 10, when the cast members see their costumes for the first time.

Across the room, Allison is being transformed into Ursula.

There’s so much attention to detail; Watt’s students have sewn small, clear suction cups on the tentacles to look like the ones on an octopus or squid.

Willy strikes a pose as he tries on his Grimsby costume during the reveal of some of the custom-made costumes. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

Willy strikes a pose as he tries on his Grimsby costume during the reveal of some of the custom-made costumes. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

Along with tentacles, it has a tuque covered with purple feathers. Allison twists around in her wheelchair wearing a huge grin.

"Somebody is excited," Watt says.

Willy tries on a black jacket for one of his roles as Grimsby, Prince Eric’s manservant, and while smartly dressed he instantly strikes various muscle poses for a photographer.

Nearby, Jackson steps into a large, green fish tail held up by EAs who then pull it up to his waist. The rubber-like muscular chest is attached over the front of his shirt and a crown is placed atop his head.

Sewing students work on making head gear for costumes for Scuttle and Gull (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

Sewing students work on making head gear for costumes for Scuttle and Gull (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

At another table, Abby sees the long, blue eels that make up her costume and Sarah’s as Flotsam and Jetsam.

"This is a puppet," Watt tells Abby. "You put your hand in. There is a coat hanger in there, so it bends.

"But the most exciting part... watch what happens when the lights go out."

The room is suddenly dark.

"The eyes light up!"

• • •

Joshua is channelling his inner Sebastian at home in River Heights on a snowy December evening.

The 19-year-old with short-cropped hair and glasses is in his seventh year at Grant Park. He has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair, but he’s quick to point out he’s a veteran of several shows or, as he says, "This is not my first musical."

He played Cogsworth the clock in Beauty and the Beast and Pumbaa in The Lion King.

Joshua’s mom, Sylvia, says there were many activities her son couldn’t do during his preschool and elementary school years, so she was thrilled when he went to Grant Park and soon heard he was going to be in a musical.

"The very first time I saw him in a play I cried," she says. "It made me very, very proud considering what his life was like earlier and seeing where he is now. The people at the school care for these kids."

For tonight’s practice session he is on the couch between his mother and his stepfather, Rick Morris.

Joshua going over lines with his stepfather Rick Morris at home. Joshua plays Sebastian the Crab. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

Joshua going over lines with his stepfather Rick Morris at home. Joshua plays Sebastian the Crab. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

Morris sees both the family and school side of Joshua because he is also an EA at Grant Park.

"The students all feel like stars at the musical," Morris says.

"I’ve been in the productions myself, so I understand the amount of effort put in by the kids, the teacher and the EAs. We have just as much fun doing it as the kids. It’s a real special time.

"Many times in life, people will see the limitations of these students. They don’t know what that child brings. They don’t look at all the positives. When these students can share their gifts, it does make you proud. And maybe they’ll realize there aren’t so many limitations."

The three of them begin practising with the script. Joshua is mostly bang-on, but the rare times when he hesitates he just needs the beginning of a line to continue.

"The practising is very minimal because he’s really quick to learn his lines," Morris says. "And many times he memorizes everybody’s lines; he has a great memory."

"And I’m doing it 10,000 times at school," cracks Joshua.

Soon, Joshua is reciting his lines and Sebastian’s words to King Triton: "Oh dear, how did I get myself into this?" - seem far removed from the joy he is getting out of his role.

• • •

While the students in the lead roles have been practising at school and home, the students who make up the chorus — those who have some of the most profound physical and cognitive challenges — have also been hard at work during a separate music class in recent weeks.

Their choral class begins with Fredette showing them a snippet of The Little Mermaid movie.

"This is to show everyone how everyone moves when they are under the water," she says.

Life Skills students learn a rowing move for a scene during a rehearsal.   (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

Life Skills students learn a rowing move for a scene during a rehearsal. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

Most gaze intently at the video. Lexi, a dark-haired girl with cognitive disabilities, is verbalizing as the movie runs and her EA is moving around to the song’s rhythm.

Nearby, Mary, a girl living with Down syndrome, shrieks with delight as her wheelchair is also pushed around in concert with the music.

Fredette has the students practise bobbing up and down — some are physically able to do it on their own while others need assistance. Then she has the students who are standing move their feet forward three times while those in wheelchairs move their arms back and forth.

Ashley Fredette helps Hope learn a move during a song.  (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

Ashley Fredette helps Hope learn a move during a song. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

When Fredette plays the familar Under the Sea, several of them begin moving their arms on their own. When she plays Kiss the Girl, Lexi moves back and forth, hands twirling.

"You know why we sing that song? Sebastian wants Prince Eric to kiss Ariel," Fredette says, and a few of the students giggle.

"When he is singing that, we need to all practise leaning in. One, two, three... lean in. One, two, three... lean in. We want you to lean in when he sings the words Kiss the Girl. I love the way Mary is singing the whole time and creating that love mood."

• • •

Fredette is home sick and there are only a few practice dates left before winter vacation, and it’s only a month before the show itself.

She has missed a few classes, felled with an illness that left her, much like the titular role in the musical, without a voice.

A substitute teacher fills in, but for some of them it’s not the same.

"I really, really don’t like... I’m not saying I don’t like substitutes, but I don’t know..." Joshua says, his voice trailing off.

• • •

The final rehearsal before Christmas vacation begins with only three cast members — a cold snap has buses running late.

A few others begin trickling in. They’re excited, but not just about the show.

Willy dances during a rehearsal. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

Willy dances during a rehearsal. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

"I’m going to sleep at my parents’ house on Christmas Eve," says one, who lives at a group home for people with developmental disabilities, jumping up and down.

Fredette, whose voice is little more than a croak, decides to start with less than the full cast.

"I don’t want to lose any time," she says. "We’re going to try to go right through (the entire musical) today."

They launch into Under the Sea, singing and dancing. And, as if on cue, Lucas loudly laughs Sebastian’s rising belly laugh before Joshua. The students all strike a pose at the end of the song.

"I would say this is definitely the number we know best," Fredette says.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Life Skills students during a rehearsal in the Performing Arts classroom at Grant Park High School.</p>

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Life Skills students during a rehearsal in the Performing Arts classroom at Grant Park High School.

As the run-through continues, it’s clear the students know about 90 per cent of their lines. Some need some prompting with the first word or two; Fredette reassures them that there will be prompters in front of the stage during the performance.

Allison sings Ursula’s signature song, Poor Unfortunate Souls. "I love your voice, Allie," Fredette says.

The practice ends with Willy, acting as Chef Louis, chopping his knife to make a stuffed crab dinner during the song Les Poissons. It’s the musical’s 17th song out of 23.

"This is farther than we’ve ever got in one class," Fredette tells the students. "I was hoping to get further, but this is great. If we get a little bit faster we can do it.

"Try to be on time for all of the rehearsals in January... in January we will practise with the costume changes."

• • •

On the second-last day of school before Christmas break, half of the students go to the sewing room for their final fittings.

Mostly it is to put the prom dresses on the various mer-sisters to see where straps have to be moved, but there are other costume checks.

There are a lot of costumes in this musical and Watt's sewing class has been busy. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

There are a lot of costumes in this musical and Watt's sewing class has been busy. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

Watt begins pulling out plastic containers from underneath the sewing tables. And keeps pulling them out. There are a lot of costumes in this musical and her class has been busy.

Both girls who are playing Ariel go into the change room and a few minutes later they emerge in sparkly long dresses to the "oohs" and "aahs" of other students and aides. But Watt thinks there is a better dress for Yeram.

While she is changing, Graham steps into his Flounder costume. "Do you want his arms out or in the costume?" Watt asks Fredette, who responds that Graham’s arms should stay out to allow him to dance during songs.

"That would be important," Watt says with a laugh.

Fredette pulls out what appears to be just a pink umbrella. "Did you guys see the jellyfish we made?" She twirls it around and long, pink ribbons fall from its edges, looking like the tentacles they’re supposed to be. "We’ll put eyes on it, too."

Students rehearse in their costumes.  (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

Students rehearse in their costumes. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

Yeram re-emerges from the dressing room wearing a sparkly orange dress. She smiles shyly during another "oohs" and "aahs" chorus.

Alvin slips on his white-beaked seagull hat, feathered jacket and two orange webbed feet over his shoes.

"Hey, look at the duck," a passing EA says, to which Alvin’s EA says "that’s not a duck. That’s Scuttle, a seagull."

Kim (right) tries on a mer-sister costume during a fitting session in the sewing classroom while (from left) an educational assistant, Ashley Fredette and Kari-lin Watt discuss options.  (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

Kim (right) tries on a mer-sister costume during a fitting session in the sewing classroom while (from left) an educational assistant, Ashley Fredette and Kari-lin Watt discuss options. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

Watt and Allison’s EA are discussing her dress. The EA thinks opening up the back of the dress will help with costume changes while Allison remains in her wheelchair.

"I don’t want to ruin the dress," the sewing teacher says. "We’ll put it around her like a halter top."

A purple feather hat with eyes is placed on Allison’s head, followed by tentacles that drop over the sides of her wheelchair. "You look very octopussy," Watt says.

Jackson gets help putting on the fish tail for his King Triton costume. Watt shows him how he’ll have to walk, by kicking the tail along, so he doesn’t fall.

Fredette tells Watt that when the students return from vacation they’ll be practising in costume.

"I think they’ll do better with the costumes on, because they’ll be more in character," Watt says.

Afterwards, Fredette says she is so thankful for Watt’s help.

"We are very very lucky to have her," she says.

• • •

She’s officially on Christmas vacation, but Allison is hard at work on her lines on Dec. 22.

Allison is sitting in her wheelchair in front of a computer desk in the downtown apartment she shares with her parents. Her mother, Wendy Onslow, sits next to her.

Allison and her mother, Wendy Onslow, practise at home. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

Allison and her mother, Wendy Onslow, practise at home. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

On the screen is family friend Dennis Bethscheider, who has spent several hours during the last few weeks helping Allison learn her lines over Skype.

"Dennis and I have been doing this for more than a month," Onslow says. "And while Allie knows her lines, we still have to read the lines."

"Allie has done so great on this," Bethscheider says. "I’m amazed at her memory... she had it memorized when we started, it was just getting her responses."

Allison practises at home with a friend. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

Allison practises at home with a friend. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

Onslow still can’t believe her daughter is playing a leading role in a musical. Allison is still fairly new to Grant Park, having transferred from another high school.

"It is really amazing; watching Allie growing up through the years, I never would have thought she’d be in a musical... and I never thought she would have this many lines.

"Allie really wanted to be Ariel, but when she came home I said, ‘You’ve got just as many lines (in the role of) Ursula.’"

• • •

The cast spends the first week back from Christmas break rehearsing.

After so many weeks of work, there are now just four more sleeps until showtime. Posters have popped up around the school advertising the show, creatively using a silhouetted mermaid whose tail serves as the second M in mermaid.

An EA expresses concern. "We’re usually a bit further along so we’re a bit anxious, but we’ll do our best."

Adding to the unease: Fredette is with another choir, so there’s a substitute teacher. Catching Joshua’s eye, he rolls his eyes back and then gives a huge grin.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Students finish singing the final song during a dress rehearsal in the classroom just days before the big show at the Gas Station Theatre.</p>

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Students finish singing the final song during a dress rehearsal in the classroom just days before the big show at the Gas Station Theatre.

The sub, dance teacher Elise Thomas, knows her job today is to run through the entire show in costume, so she gets down to work immediately.

"Aren’t these costumes amazing?" she asks.

An educational assistant puts Chef Louis' hat on Willy . (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

An educational assistant puts Chef Louis' hat on Willy . (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

Willy puts on his chef’s hat for the first time. An EA exclaims, "Oh, Willy, it’s you! Oh, isn’t this exciting?"

Then Thomas takes charge: "OK, everybody has something costumey on and we’re about on time. Let’s go, because you are going to be performing on Tuesday. And remember to say our lines loud, but not shouting."

The opening song is cued up and everybody starts doing the rowing motion they’re supposed to be doing. Then, on cue, Jackson’s King Triton moves forward and the play really begins.

One by one the songs play and the students sing their solo parts or raise their voices together. It seems a blur; the concluding version of Under the Sea comes up and Thomas shows the students how to take their bows.

"Have a great show next week," she says as they make their way out. "That was awesome."

 

Act 3

 
Seven months after Larsen let students know what show they’d be performing, Fredette begins the day filling her car with the plastic bins full of costumes while sections of the sets are being loaded into a pickup truck. They head off to the Gas Station.

Just like any other school day, cast members arrive at Grant Park and head to classrooms until buses arrive at 9:30 a.m. to take them to the theatre. The students with the highest needs — if they are incontinent — are escorted to washrooms to check if they are dry.

It will be a long day for them and their EAs. The school has changing tables that rise up and down at the push of a button. The theatre has a washroom floor. The school has hooks set up so feeding bags can be hung for the students who are tube-fed. The theatre has hooks designed for holding stage equipment, but in a pinch can be used to help feed students.

"It is a huge undertaking, but the kids are really great about it," says Adrienne Patrick. "But it is a very positive experience and a lot of fun."

Ashley Fredette speaks to the cast during the dress rehearsal. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

Ashley Fredette speaks to the cast during the dress rehearsal. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

While there is quiet excitement building, so too, is apprehension.

A few of the EAs have called in sick. Even worse, Abby, who plays one of the mer-sisters as well as one of Ursula’s hench-eels, Flotsam, is sick as well. The musical has no understudies, but, luckily, Sarah, who plays the other hench-eel, Jetsam, knows Abby’s lines, so she’ll do double duty today. Backstage volunteer Vinnie Alberto is mustered into standing beside Sarah to hold the other eel.

Krishna Neupane, a former student doing his practicum at Grant Park, is suddenly pressed into service as an aide to a performer, even though he hasn’t been to a single rehearsal.

"I guess he’ll have to improvise," a smiling teacher says.

Surprisingly, Neupane doesn’t look like a deer caught in headlights.

"I’m happy and excited," he says. "I was in a play before when I was in school here."

Bracken walks down a hallway at 9:28 a.m.: "It’s showtime," he says, and the next few minutes unfold like a crack military drill with students who can walk getting on one of the two buses, while the lifts go up and down several times so the students in wheelchairs can get on board the other. The buses pull away from the school at 9:45 a.m.

By 10:05, everyone is at the theatre. "Peace out," Willy says as he gets off his bus.

The dress rehearsal goes off with very few hitches. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

The dress rehearsal goes off with very few hitches. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

The dress rehearsal goes off with very few hitches.

Amazingly, one of the students in the chorus experienced a mild seizure while on stage that was unnoticed by many watching, but not by the EAs around her. A couple of them quickly took her off the stage to recover. Within a few seconds she was back.

A proud Bracken offers a shout-out.

"The average person wouldn’t even know anything happened, but the two EAs knew what to do," he said.

• • •

The doors open and a crowd of parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, friends and others flow in and quickly look for a seat in the 232-seat theatre.

The costumed students are in place onstage, the music starts and suddenly the curtain opens. The performers and school staff have seen the colourful clothing for weeks, but this is the first time for audience members, who immediately applaud.

An educational assistant helps a student get into her costume before the start of The Little Mermaid.  (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

An educational assistant helps a student get into her costume before the start of The Little Mermaid. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

For the next 50 minutes, cast members sing their songs. The leads speak the dialogue. They move around.

The student playing the original singing Ariel gives up her voice to Allison, or should we say Ursula, in return for the chance to win the love of Prince Eric on dry land while unable to speak.

The original Ariel goes offstage, replaced a few seconds later, by Yeram.

Joshua earns laughs as Sebastian, as does Jackson playing King Triton and Willy wielding his chopping knives on various sea creatures as Chef Louis.

Willy’s parents are moved as they watch their son perform.

"I was just in tears," a still-emotional Deanna Henderson tells Fredette in the lobby afterward. "Whenever we go to a park he always goes on the stage, but this is the first time I’ve seen him on a stage like this."

"His dream has come true," Daniel Yendrys adds.

The curtain rises on The Little Mermaid

 

The last song comes and goes and the students — and EAs — all have their arms up in the air before bringing them down in a final bow.

Graham has two bouquets of flowers — one for Fredette, the other for Watt.

Ashley Fredette, bouquets of flowers in her arms, thanks the cast of The Little Mermaid. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

Ashley Fredette, bouquets of flowers in her arms, thanks the cast of The Little Mermaid. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

"Thank you for helping us put on such a wonderful production," he says.

And then Fredette walks to the centre of the stage.

"I just want to say..." she starts, and then tears start welling up in her eyes. "It’s just such a privilege to teach these kids. I don’t consider it a job. I start every day with sunshine.

"They’re just amazing — thank you."

And, with that, and the applause still ringing in the performers’ ears, the curtain closes.

 

Video: Making a Musical

An exclusive, 17-minute behind-the-scenes look at how a group of Grant Park students living with disabilities staged the musical The Little Mermaid.

Read more by Kevin Rollason .

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