Unified Theater Partners With Hartford Stage For Pilot Program
By JULIE STAGIS
January 23, 2013
HARTFORD —— Unified Theater, a nonprofit group that works with schools to help students write, develop and perform plays that include roles for kids with disabilities, has grown rapidly in the past three years and is looking to bring the program to even more communities.
The nonprofit organization recently partnered with Hartford Stage in a pilot program that will bring the theater staff's expertise to participating schools in Greater Hartford.
The two organizations will work together to implement new Unified Theater programs in schools around the region, and the affiliation will serve as a model as Unified continues to expand around the country.
"For the last three years, we've really been ramping up and growing in the Greater Hartford area and around Connecticut and nationally," said West Hartford native Micaela Connery, executive director of Unified Theater. The organization started developing a strategic plan and asking, "how do we maintain and serve more markets? How do we retain the quality of our local programs here in Hartford?"
Connery started Unified Theater in 2002, when she was 15 and a sophomore at Conard High School. Rejected from a spot in the school play, Connery organized a small production on her own.
Growing up with a disabled cousin, Connery noticed that students with disabilities seldom ended up on stage. Her show was written, choreographed and performed by students with disabilities working along with their peers.
Eleven years later, Unified Theater is in 44 schools in Connecticut and five other states, including California. Since 2009, when there were just seven programs, the budget has grown from about $8,000 to $300,000.
The nonprofit is working to hire staff around the country to conduct student-leader training sessions to get programs off the ground, but for "the actual implementation, support would come from a local partner," Connery said.
"We want someone that brings something that we don't have a strength in – how about regional theaters?" Connery recalls thinking.
Partnering with established theaters will help grow the program without growing the staff and, perhaps most importantly, the budget, said Tom Fiorentino, the chairman of the Unified Theater board of directors. The Hartford Stage partnership is largely funded by a $165,000, three-year grant from The Hartford Foundation for Public Giving.
"Inclusion is new to [the theaters], but it's what we live and breathe," Fiorentino said. "And theater is what they live and breathe."
Unified Theater staff will still lay the groundwork for new programs – guiding teachers and students through the initial development process, training student leaders and faculty advisors, and running "Spotlight Summits," huge workshops for all participants in a region.
The regional theater – Hartford Stage in Connecticut – will come in at the summits and run the "Get Creative" part of the day. Then, theater staff will visit with each group for a pre-production meeting and again to provide feedback and help during a rehearsal later in the year. At Hartford Stage the Unified Theater instructor will be Robert Reader, the theater's school programs coordinator.
In addition, the education department at the theater will benefit from Unified Theater's inclusion expertise, according to Jennifer Roberts, director of education for Hartford Stage.
"It fits our mission, too, because the education department here aims to make theater accessible to all students regardless of income, background, [etc.]. Now we can add disability," Roberts said. "That's expertise that we're able to take across the board and use in our other programs.
"Our programs have always been inclusive, we've never excluded anyone, but to be able to really do it well takes some training and expertise, so we're really glad to be able to have that," she said. "It's a win-win."
If it works, the relationship with Hartford Stage will serve as a model, and Unified Theater can eventually have a national presence while efficiently using limited resources, Connery said.
"How do you grow smart instead of trying to be all things as a nonprofit is growing? What can you leverage to make it more effective?" she said.
"Funders are excited about it, too," Connery said. "We're still looked at as a relatively new organization. When you partner with somebody like the Hartford Stage, which is really established, it's a nice balance."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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