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By Schae Beaudoin
The University of Connecticut branch of Unified Theater is entering its second year and seeking to build their organization and find students interested in acting, choreography, directing, and scriptwriting to get involved.
Unified Theater is a national nonprofit organization that focuses on bringing students with and without disabilities together through the performing arts.
Unified Theater’s main goal, according to their national website, is to “empower youth to lead, let creativity rule, and put the spotlight on ability.”
Unified Theater is a program in 60 schools among six states, including middle schools, high schools and colleges, according to Unified Theater’s website.
Unified Theater is entirely student-run. Tori VonKaenel, president of the UConn branch, said in an email “Students are the writers, directors, producers, and choreographers as well as performers.”
There is not one single leader, rather there are several student leaders. Certain students take charge, as director, stage manager, and other important positions, but every participant is allowed to give input into any part of the production.
VonKaenel admitted that it can be challenging because each member needs to be flexible and willing to compromise. However, the benefits outweigh the challenges for VonKaenel.
“Student-run programs focus on the needs of each individual and allow everyone to take part in a show, even if they are not interested in performing,” she said.
Diana Miner, a member of UConn’s Unified program, said in an email, that the student-run environment “really allows everyone to shine when performance day comes.”
Lindsay Cummings, assistant professor of theatre studies at UConn, said student-run productions can show a unique side of an issue.
“Normally you get a school workshop that’s like ‘This is how we should handle talking about disability and ability and diversity.’ This allows that entire model to flip,” she said. “You get to tell your peers and your parents and the teachers what you think about those issues and that’s important because students have a unique perspective,” she continued.
Gary English, Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of Dramatic Arts at UConn, said theater that reaches out beyond the professional realm, like Unified Theater, can make society think about problems that aren’t in the mainstream.
“In coming together to discuss those problems and present those problems or illuminate those problems through theater, I can imagine it will… raise the consciousness of the entire community,” he said.
One of the biggest pillars of Unified Theater is inclusion. Unified focuses “on true inclusion, which means accepting others, regardless of ability level, as individuals and equals,” VonKaenel said.
Cummings believes inclusion in theater can help performers and writers feel more invested in a production.
“It means everyone involved in the project has a real stake in it and a sense of ‘I made this too. My voice is being heard,’” she said.
Ultimately, Unified Theater hopes the inclusion they foster will reach beyond the stage.
“We want to see lasting change in the discussion around inclusion and see inclusion practiced in all aspects of our lives,” VonKaenel said.
English said when diverse groups bring personal experience to the stage, it can make a production shine.
“I can almost guarantee you that the energy created from that personal experience would be unique to the project and would carry it forward with a kind of creative energy that you might not get otherwise,” he said.
Cummings said diversity onstage is significant for representation overall.
“We know that representation in our society is hugely important and that, in general, our mass media does not represent enough diversity,” she said. “…And in theater, it’s even perhaps, I don’t want to say more important than in advertisement, television or film, but it’s a different kind of important because you actually have live bodies in the room with you.”
Cummings also believes the performing arts, while it may seem scary, can give a voice to an individual who has no experience with theater.
“You’re putting yourself out there for other people and there’s both power in that and there’s vulnerability in that… I think that balance of power and vulnerability is important both for the performers and the people receiving it. That’s how we get to know each other as deeply complex human beings.”
While VonKaenel said the organization has been using word of mouth and Daily Digest announcements to get the word out about Unified Theater, she admits it can be tough to grab the student body’s attention.
“When there are so many established organizations, some fee-funded and some under larger organizations like Community Outreach, the new, smaller organizations can get lost,” she said.
Yet, VonKaenel remains optimistic about Unified Theater’s second year.
“We have gotten a small, but enthusiastic turnout so far this year, and I’m confident that we will have an excellent group by the time we are ready to start rehearsing,” she said.
As for the lasting impact that Unified Theater has had on VonKaenel personally, it feels like a constant reward.
“Having a group of people who are always willing to collaborate with you to create a show that meets everyone’s needs is a dream. It’s great to be a part of something that brings everyone closer together and brings so much joy to the community,” she said.