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Draper Journal

Actors with special needs star in Draper Historic Theatre Youth Council’s ‘Peter Pan: Escape to Neverland’

May 17, 2021 11:24AM ● By Katherine Weinstein

The actors in the Draper Historic Theatre production of “Peter Pan: Escape to Neverland” for special needs youth take a break from rehearsing to smile for the camera. (Photo courtesy Stacee Hunsaker/Draper Historic Theatre)

By Katherine Weinstein | [email protected]

The enthusiasm of the young actors was contagious at a recent rehearsal for Draper Historic Theatre’s, “Peter Pan: Escape to Neverland.” They practiced their lines, engaged in a play swordfight and played a bonding game while sitting in a circle. Being in a play and rehearsing is a new experience for most of the actors, each of whom may be described as having “special needs” or being neuroatypical.

“The motivation behind this show was to create an opportunity for special needs kids and adults to be on stage and perform,” explained director Alyssa Miller. “We were surprised at the number of kids who wanted to do this and are excited to be here.”

“Opportunities like this don’t come often enough,” said Mandy Barlow, mother of eighth-grader Jordan, who plays the title role. “He’s never been in a play before. This is a whole new experience for him. Jordan loves dancing and showing off. His sister dances so it’s fun for him to have a turn on stage.” 

While memorizing lines poses a bit of a challenge for Jordan, he is embracing the role with gusto. “It’s fun!” he exclaimed. He summed up the best part of being in “Peter Pan” in one word: “Friends.” 

Brecia Hansen, who plays the Narrator and Tiger Lily, echoed the sentiment. “I’m really excited. I really enjoy how everybody interacts with each other. It’s a good bonding experience for us, it’s like we’re a family.” 

The youngest member of the cast is a 7 year old who plays the Crocodile, the oldest is in her 40s. 

Larissa Smith graduated from high school in 2008 and now works in a daycare. She is thrilled to be playing Captain Hook. “Plays are fun—it’s fun to be another person,” she said. “The directors are nice. I love that I’m one of the main characters. I love being and expressing a different character.”

Larissa’s mom, Richelle Smith, noted, “A lot of these kids don’t have extracurricular activities, so this is very special.” 

“Once you turn 21 you’re pretty much on your own,” added her husband DeeJay. “There is a lack of activities for special needs young adults, especially opportunities to be physically active.” 

DeeJay Smith commended the members of the Draper Historic Theatre Youth Council who are behind the scenes producing “Peter Pan: Escape to Neverland.” “The teens are running this,” he explained. “For the kids in the show, it’s about more than just putting on a play, they make friends with their peers.” 

Stacee Hunsaker, the executive secretary of the Draper Historic Theatre board, is working with the Youth Council as an adult mentor. She helps to keep the cast focused and engaged and is overseeing aspects of the show such as costuming and sets. Hunsaker noted that the teens on the Youth Council all have years of experience performing and are now getting hands-on experience with the production side of theater.

The teens have come up with some creative ideas for staging “Peter Pan.” For example, instead of making Peter literally fly on stage, “I get to fly a puppet around,” said Jordan Barlow. 

Alyssa Miller, a ninth-grader at Corner Canyon High School, is directing the production. It is her first time directing a show. “It is really cool to get this new experience,” she said. 

In addition to directing, Miller worked on editing the original script which was written specifically for actors with special needs. “It’s a telling of the story of Peter Pan that’s really heartfelt. We wanted a story that we could tell well with our actors,” Miller explained. 

“I love theatre and don’t know what I would do without it. I’ve realized that there isn’t anything really like it for these kids with special needs and that makes me sad. I couldn’t be happier about what we’re doing,” said Roman Southwick, who is president of the DHT Youth Council. A ninth-grader at Alta High School, he is the choreographer for “Peter Pan.” 

The kids on the DHT Youth Council are having as much fun as the actors performing in the play. “Everyone’s really excited for people to come see the show,” Miller said. “It’s uplifting. I always leave rehearsals feeling happier than when I came in.”

“Peter Pan: Escape to Neverland” will be presented at Draper Historic Theatre May 21, 22 and 24 at 7 p.m. with a 2 p.m. matinee on May 22. Draper Historic Theatre is located at 12366 S. 900 East. The ticket hotline is 801-572-4144 during performance weeks.  Tickets may also be purchased via the theatre website at