By Bailey McGuinn and Anna Skelton
Morristown High School’s theater program was honored at Tuesday’s Paper Mill Rising Star Awards for an innovative show tailored to students and adults with disabilities.
The school won the “Theatre for All: Access and Inclusion” Award for its spring musical, Legally Blonde.
It’s Morristown’s second year in a row winning the award, which recognizes the inclusion of people with disabilities in all aspects of the theater program, as well as accessibility for its audiences.
The program also was nominated for the “Educational Impact Award,” and earned Honorable Mentions for an “Outstanding Performance by a Chorus,” as well as for “Outstanding Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role” for Victoria Fanning’s performance as Paulette Bonafonté.
“Last year we started as a directing team and we all looked at how we could make the theater the most inclusive place that we could,” MHS show producer Ralph Losanno said during his acceptance speech.
“We wanted to make sure that our theater program was truly a home for everyone.”
Ralph Losanno and Michael Maguire accept the award. Video courtesy of Bailey McGuinn
After winning the award for its 2016 spring musical Once Upon A Mattress, the program took inclusion a step further by creating a performance specifically geared towards community members with special needs.
This free, “sensory friendly” performance included adjusted volume and lighting settings, increased availability of exits, and access to classrooms with calming activities as needed.
Dr. Jessica Neu, Pre K-12 supervisor of special education , along with parent committee volunteers Karen McAllister, Ann Bono and Julie Gulisano, and MHS Senior Leo Ruiz helped to make the event possible.
Additional support was provided by the Morris Educational Foundation Student Board, Parent Advocacy Council for Education, Governor’s Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse, and the Morris Plains Municipal Alliance.
“The sensory friendly performance was an amazing experience for the community,” said Ruiz.
“We were able to give families a special night out at the theater, which rarely happens because of social anxiety that take place. It was a joy to see whole families getting to go out and see a show that everyone can enjoy.”
Additionally, the program donated 10 percent of its profits from the Thursday night performance of Legally Blonde to support brain cancer and breast cancer research.
“The theater is truly a special place and a place that everyone should find their happiness and peace in,” Losanno said.
The program also embraces any and all students, regardless of special needs or disabilities. The department prides itself on using theater as a powerful tool to bring students together and promote positive messages of acceptance.
Tuesday’s award included a $1,000 gift. Artistic Director Michael Maguire urged other directors and administrators in the audience to ”reach out to create their own sensory friendly performances,” and offered to help them offer programs that are more accessible to all members of their communities.
“I am so proud of the MHS Theatre Program for their sensory friendly production of Legally Blonde,” said Neu.
“To my knowledge there has not been another high school yet in the state to put on such an innovative and well thought out production for the students and families in their schools and surrounding communities. The Rising Star Award is a true testament to the inclusive philosophy embraced by Michael Maguire, the rest of the staff, cast, and parents. Thank you for being ALL IN.”
Look for increased accessibility and inclusion in coming years.
“It was a huge success and we cannot wait to expand even further,” said Losanno.
The Morristown High School Theatre Department is looking ahead to November, when it presents the drama, Almost, Maine.
Morristown High School juniors Bailey McGuinn and Anna Skelton are members of the theater department. They also appeared this month in ‘West Side Story’ at the Mayo Performing Arts Center.