CAPE GIRARDEAU — Patrick Andrews and Billy Guth have never acted, but both will star in an upcoming production of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol." They enjoy the attention they are receiving from their roles and argue who has the best role, Andrews as Fred, or Guth as the Ghost of Christmas Past. For Guth, the narration is the highlight of the play, while Andrews said the characters are what make it a classic.
Andrews and Guth are two of the 47 adults with developmental disabilities participating in Project Stage Light, a program offered by the Association for Persons with Intellectual Disabilities, to give those with special needs the opportunity to experience the arts. The organization was formerly known as the Cape Girardeau County Association of Retarded Citizens but changed its name over the summer.
The actors are all VIP Industries employees, a nonprofit corporation for the employment of individuals with handicaps. The play's producer, Meagan Edmonds, said the actors are not only gaining experience on the stage but growing as individuals.
"They are learning to take new risks and trust themselves. It is more than a play, it is opening doors for them," she said.
She said the obstacles in producing a play with a cast made up entirely of actors with developmental disabilities are similar to those faced by any producer.
"It's the same struggle with any new actor. You tread lightly at first to see how far you can push them. We give them positive feedback and positive criticism, and they take that feedback and grow," she said.
However, working with actors with developmental disabilities does have some more unusual challenges, said Edmonds, a graduate of Southeast Missouri State University with a degree in theater. The language has been modified to make it easier for the actors to speak and memorize, she said, but the play is still the classic audiences will recognize.
"It is Dickens. We took liberty with the language of the text, but it is still telling the story," she said.
Being more flexible with the dialogue allowed the actors to project more of themselves into the play.
"Their own personalities came through. It helped them feel more comfortable and made it more believable," she said.
VIP staff will also appear on stage to assist actors with lines and movement.
Brian Keith Austin, who plays Bob Cratchit, is already asking Edmonds what the Project Stage Light's next performance will be. He said he would like to see the group tackle a musical.
While the idea of using theatrical productions to encourage growth among people with disabilities is not new to the area, the organization is now using the cultural program in conjunction with other programs, such as VIP, to foster socialization.
A common request by VIP employees, or consumers, said Lori Archer, communications director for VIP Industries, is that they would like more time to spend with their friends outside of work. Although the group has offered outings in the past, this year it established the Outdoor Adventure program to provide regular camping and fishing trips for the disabled. In the past the group has taken trips to Kentucky Lake, but this year they stayed closer to home, going to Lake Wappapello.
"We wanted to develop it into more than just a weekend excursion, so we started looking at ways to educate the campers about nature as well as to develop their social skills," Archer said.
She said they looked at other organizations that were doing similar programs, such as the Therapeutic Recreation Program sponsored by Southern Illinois University in Carbondale.
"We not only use the weekend to teach them camping skills such as how to build a campfire and how to identify various plants and animals but also to help them build social skills, develop their self-esteem and encourage physical fitness," she said.
Edmonds and Archer said the programs are developing and they hope to open it up to members of the community with developmental disabilities, as well as anyone who would like to volunteer as mentors and staff members.