It’s like no other show, and I am always glad I get to be in it. This was the third time I’ve participated in “Laughing Feet,” and still, it’s like no other show.
In 2007, Jenny Mitchell and her brother Shaun-Michael Morse were approached to direct and choreograph a city-wide variety show for kids with disabilities. Jenny says everyone learned a lot that first year, especially her.
“Theater is an amazing vehicle for breaking down walls and developing trust among one another,” she said.
Admitting she didn’t know what she was doing that first year, she decided to treat the kids, who had a variety of challenges, the same way she would treat, teach and direct any group of young people. With patience and hard work, they took part in singing songs, doing skits, dancing, laughing and giving hugs. Lots and lots of hugs.
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Wayne Bryan of Music Theatre Wichita has been one of the well-known faces appearing on stage with these amazing people.
“These performers who span a wide age range with a variety of challenges seem to come alive in the spotlight. Their individual and collective joy is palpable from the first rehearsal on through the night of the big performance,” he said.
So true. The joy they exhibit is why I love being a part of the show. When I asked the local celebrities why they liked doing the show, all of them, including Mayor Jeff Longwell, used the word “joy.”
Danielle, a beautiful girl who uses a wheelchair, can’t sing, but her squeals of delight can be heard over even the loudest singing. She and I bonded because she loves shiny jewelry.
Local actor Steve Hitchcock says he quickly fell in love with the kids, their spirit and their boundless energy four years ago. “It’s become my favorite way to the start the new year because it’s always the perfect reminder that not every step or note or moment needs to be perfect and that being on a stage and getting to express something wonderful with an audience is the real gift,” Steve said.
“As a performer, sometimes I forget to sit back and enjoy and have fun while I’m onstage. Watching these kids always reminds me to just have a blast while I’m up there,” Steve said.
Another well-known local actor, Patty Reeder, says being in “Laughing Feet” has made an impact on her life.
“I had very little interaction with special needs people, and now I have made lasting friendships and have gained so much respect for these folks and their incredible families. Their love and enthusiasm is endless and contagious,” she said.
The show was in the performance hall at Newman University. It wasn’t a packed house, but a good-sized audience seemed to enjoy every minute, laughing and applauding. A woman who stopped me after the show said this was the first time she’d seen “Laughing Feet,” but that she would never miss another one.
Then she said what I have said for years: “It is difficult to explain what it’s all about. You have to see it to appreciate it.”
Before I got her name she was off to the after-show reception, where she wanted to meet Karla Burns. Karla played a fairy godmother in a “fractured fairy tale” and brought down the house.
Jenny started with kids who wouldn’t look her in the eye, they wouldn’t converse with her. “Now they sing with me and dance with me. They look deep into my eyes with a profoundness that is indescribable,” she said.
“I have done theater all my life, and somehow deep in my heart and soul, I knew I would someday run a theater company. I just never thought it would be one for special needs,” she said.
Jenny has no background or formal education on the subject of people with disabilities, but that hasn’t been a problem for anyone. Her performers feel valued, talented, appreciated and applauded for their efforts. Jenny says she’s honored and humbled to get to do what she does – putting on a show with a big cast, most of them with a disability.
But the saying on the T-shirt she wore to rehearsal one evening summed up not only how she felt, but the feelings of everyone else who was lucky enough to be in the show: “If you think my hands are full, you should see my heart.”
Reach Bonnie Bing at firstname.lastname@example.org.