'We believe strongly that we are all learners'
A scene from Theatre Adventures’ <i>Twelfth Night</i>.

'We believe strongly that we are all learners'

Theatre Adventure, which opens up the world of performing arts and creative self-expression to a range of youth and adults with disabilities, looks to two productions this spring

BRATTLEBORO — When Elijah Jensen, who has cerebral palsy and intellectual disabilities, was in school, he couldn't participate in many activities in an environment where “they weren't aware that that meant they needed to make accommodations for someone who had a disability,” his mother, Darlene Jensen, said.

As she talked with Laura Lawson Tucker, who operated the home childhood center where Elijah spent his time, she recalled how she was “just exclaiming how there was so little for us to participate in.”

In 2004, the two started a theater program with the help of Stephen Sterns, the founder of New England Youth Theatre and a friend of Tucker's.

“And so she talked with him, he talked with somebody who wrangled up some money to pay us, and we started a program,” Jensen said.

Since then, Theatre Adventure has become an inclusive theater of youth and adults with disabilities that performs original shows created for its participants, as well as different forms of art.

The mission: “to empower youth and adults with disabilities through the expressive arts while building self-confidence, leadership, and community.”

Theatre Adventure became its own nonprofit in 2018, with the cofounders in leading roles: Tucker as the executive director and Jenson as the disabilities specialist and co-director.

They also have a costumer, Lori Angell; a singer-songwriter, Rich Nethercott; and a technical director, Maria Pugneti, as well as a board of directors and teaching team.

Elijah's special needs inspired them to create an inclusive space - not just for him, but for people of all ages with disabilities who wanted to participate.

“Elijah has been our guidepost because he has mobility issues and cognitive issues,” Jensen said. “It's good to pay attention to him because if he's not getting it, we need to rethink how we're teaching it.”

A unique learning experience

Theatre Adventure's curriculum is based on what the students need and is not applied to, or specific to, individual participants.

“I work with the students and work with developing our inclusive curriculum, which we're always developing, and [with the] creative director for our productions,” Tucker says.

She emphasizes the unique learning process for this theater among the students, the directors, and the teachers. “We believe strongly that we are all learners,” she says.

The result: “I think - I know - what we've created is very dynamic programming,” she says.

Theatre Adventure went online due to COVID-19 in spring 2020 and is currently in-person and live-streaming for their shows and their rehearsals.

Going online “actually has been great,” Tucker explains. “We've learned a lot. And one thing that we've learned is actually some of our students online is better.”

As a result, a hybrid program works better for their students.

“That's why we had a fundraiser and bought tech equipment so that we could be hybrid, so we could keep offering that to our students,” she says. “It was really better.”

The remote option also has given students from faraway areas a chance to participate as well.

During the pandemic, Theatre Adventure was able to provide all students - including those from far away - with boxes filled with art supplies, allowing fresh opportunities that stimulate creativity.

“They didn't have such a great school experience. They, you know, were maybe in a classroom with other folks with disabilities. And many of them weren't given a very creative dynamic,” Tucker says.

Jensen and Tucker wanted to find ways to offer program's summer theater arts camp online - a challenge because it had focused on outside art experiences.

“We shifted the whole focus on nature and on the environment, and, and brought in a bunch of other arts, that's where that all started to happen,” Tucker says.

She explains that Theatre Adventures is still learning how to work with the pandemic. “We're working with how we can use these new environments in really interesting ways,” she says.

Friendship and fantasy

Two shows will be performing in the coming weeks.

On Wednesday, April 6 through Friday, April 8, Harmony: A Portrait of Friendship will explore the positive and negative components of friendship, gleaned from the participating students themselves.

“We spend a lot of time gathering their thoughts and ideas about friendship in their lives,” Tucker says. “And so that's part of the creative process of not fitting them into a script, but like developing the script from them.”

The show will also take place in a café setting, which can “help merge the two environments” of students performing online and in person, she adds.

On Wednesday, May 18, through Friday, May 20, The Curious Child and the Flying Horses will touch upon the studies of multicultural myths and will include many fantasy stories.

Theatre Adventure plans to stay online and continue to adapt in the ways it needs to for the students.

“Our hope is that, yes, we're providing a valuable, creative, artistic experience for our students,” Tucker says. “But our hope also is to offer an invitation to many other people to recognize the importance of everybody who lives in our communities.”

“So it includes people with disabilities - people who are different,” she says.

Subscribe to the newsletter for weekly updates