Sterling Civic Theatre adds special needs program

Auditions for summer show set for early May

By: Cortney Casey | Sterling Heights Sentry | Published April 25, 2011

 Noah Mathews poses with Larry O’Grady, who co-founded Sterling Civic Theatre with Dave Luedtke. The community theater group recently added Noah’s Ark, a segment for people with special needs inspired by and named after Mathews.

Noah Mathews poses with Larry O’Grady, who co-founded Sterling Civic Theatre with Dave Luedtke. The community theater group recently added Noah’s Ark, a segment for people with special needs inspired by and named after Mathews.

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STERLING HEIGHTS — When Larry O’Grady told Sydney Forsythe that he planned to establish a special segment of Sterling Civic Theatre for people with disabilities, she became choked up.

When he told her he wanted to name it after her son, “it was Niagara Falls at that point,” he recalled.

Alongside traditional auditions for Sterling Civic Theatre’s third production, “The Wizard of Oz,” the community theater group is launching Noah’s Ark, a program uniting special needs adults and children with roles in the show that best match their interests and abilities. Options range from acting, singing and dancing to ushering, designing sets and handling lighting.

Forsythe’s 11-year-old son, Noah Mathews, was the inspiration. Born with half a heart, Mathews has endured three open-heart surgeries and will eventually need a transplant. He has mild cerebral palsy, and cognitive and learning impairments. He’s been in speech, occupational and physical therapy since birth. He’s also autistic.

And he’s the heart and soul of the Sterling Civic Theatre, which he’s been part of since the group’s first show, “Seussical the Musical,” last summer.

“Noah, we found out right off the bat, was basically a miracle every single day this kid’s lived,” said O’Grady, who runs Sterling Civic Theatre with Dave Luedtke. “This kid has got the most energy — he’s the most energetic of everybody.”

Watching Mathews proudly singing loud and clear as Thing No. 2 and a Who in “Seussical” planted the seed from which Noah’s Ark has sprouted, with support from the Macomb Intermediate School District and Sterling Heights Parks and Recreation Department, said O’Grady.

Sterling Heights already has a reputation for providing programs for people with disabilities, and Kyle Langlois, Parks and Recreation manager, said this is one more avenue for providing opportunities to as many users as possible.

Department staffers will serve as liaisons for drafting procedures or brainstorming ideas as needed, he said. O’Grady said language already has been added to Sterling Civic Theatre’s manual, reminding participants to be cognizant of the slang they use, lest they inadvertently offend people with special needs.

Forsythe is delighted that others facing obstacles like the ones her son faces will have access to a creative outlet.

“I think it’s just going to give them a sense of community and belonging and purpose that they might not have otherwise,” she said. “If they can come away with a better sense of themselves and with better self-esteem, I think that is one of the highest gifts (O’Grady) can give to them as an individual and to the community at large.”

Forsythe and her husband, Carl, drive 45 minutes each way from Lake Orion, so Mathews can participate in Sterling Civic Theatre. It’s become a family affair; she acted with her son in “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” and her husband now builds sets.

For Mathews, so social that his mother has to stop him from embracing strangers, it’s a dream come true.

“I am a big fan of stages,” he said matter-of-factly.

Forsythe said Mathews, who loves to sing and dance, previously was hesitant about performing in public. Since Sterling Civic Theatre, he’s become “fearless,” eager to take on lines and solos in other productions, such as an upcoming Mother’s Day show at their church, she said.

At this point, Noah’s Ark participants will work alongside other cast members, but if enough people with special needs become interested, it may break off into an independent program, said O’Grady.

All auditions are deemed “open,” meaning everyone who tries out earns a part. O’Grady said about one-third of the roles will not be cast during auditions, as organizers want to wait a few weeks to see who attends rehearsals faithfully.

There were 138 people in “Seussical” and 114 in “Joseph,” but O’Grady anticipates many more for “Oz” as the group picks up steam.

“We realistically are prepared for a cast of 350,” he said. “We believe the cast size is probably going to be closer to anywhere from 200 to 275.”

Many smaller roles will probably be double- or triple-cast to provide more opportunities outside of the chorus, he added.

Auditions are 6:30-8:30 p.m. May 2-5 and 9-11 in the cafeteria of Stevenson High School, located at 39701 Dodge Park Road, north of 17 Mile. To schedule an appointment, call (586) 264-5571.

Rehearsals are on Tuesday and Thursday evenings. Performances are July 15-17 and 22-24. The fee to participate is $20 for Sterling Heights residents, $30 for nonresidents. Children under age 6 must be accompanied at every rehearsal and in the show itself by a parent.

For more information, visit www.sterlingcivic.org or search for “Sterling Civic Theatre” on Facebook.com.

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