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Music makers, dreamers of dreams

District 75 students’ ‘Wonka’ performance ‘speaks volumes’
New York Teacher

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After months of bonding during rehearsals, the students from P53K @ Spring Creek
Pat Arnow
After months of bonding during rehearsals, the students from P53K @ Spring Creek Community School deliver an unforgettable performance.
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Paraprofessional Antonia Espinosa helps a squirrel adjust her tail before her sc
Pat Arnow
Paraprofessional Antonia Espinosa helps a squirrel adjust her tail before her scene.
When the students of P53K @ Spring Creek Community School in Brooklyn selected “Willy Wonka Jr.” for their school play, teacher Rachel Owens said it was a fitting choice.

Owens, who also directed the May 8 production, said the whimsical and colorful play “fit a lot of personalities well.”

She said the play’s variety of characters “with a strong part in the storyline” means “there’s someone for every role.”

Students at the District 75 school in Bushwick have challenging disabilities and are “cognizant of others treating them in certain ways,” said music teacher Ed McKenna, the play’s musical director. But as they build skills and confidence, he says, “they forget being judged that way and are allowed to shine.”

The students, who range in age from 14 to 20, or grades 8–12, were already familiar with the “Willy Wonka” story. They rehearsed weekly after school for more than five months, practicing their lines, perfecting the choreography and fine-tuning the sound and lighting effects.

Staff members also played an integral role in the production, from constructing set pieces, lighting and props, to finding and sewing the students’ costumes.

McKenna said that without the 10-plus staff members who contributed, the performance “wouldn’t have been possible.”

This was the school’s second show funded by a grant from the Shubert Foundation/Music Theatre International Broadway Junior program. Last year, it staged “Annie.”

Teacher Ed McKenna loved seeing “the different phases” of his students’ growth.
Pat Arnow
Teacher Ed McKenna loved seeing “the different phases” of his students’ growth.
Singing and dancing in front of a live audience can be daunting for almost anyone. So for these students with cognitive challenges, “being able to perform at a high level speaks volumes,” said Pierre Labissiere, a paraprofessional and the school’s chapter leader.

Owens, who enjoyed musical theater when she was in high school, said it’s “really, really nice to help ignite a passion I’ve also had.” She said she wants to create the same “authentic high school experiences” she had, because these students “deserve all of those things.”

The students’ hard work paid off in their performance for some 300 people, including proud parents who McKenna says were “floored” by their children’s accomplishments.

“Very few people are able to do what they do,” Labissiere said, “and our students did it with style and grace.”