‘More than just a class’: Westmoreland Performing Arts offers support, community through a special ability theater group

Isaac Klimchok knew what to do when his colleagues missed the cue.

He had just finished a scene with Chris Henderson and the audience’s applause echoed off the walls of the Science Hall Theater at Westmoreland County Community College.

Klimchok and Henderson waited and waited for other actors to join them for the next scene in a comedy adaptation of The Nutcracker. There was silence in the hall.

Director Renata Marino’s voice cut through the air.

“Okay everyone, let’s do it again!” she shouted from the back of the room, drawing light-hearted laughter from the audience.

Klimchok, 27, of Latrobe, didn’t let the setback faze him.

“Sorry about that, everybody,” he told the audience, “but can you repeat that applause?”

The crowd complied and the show went on.

Klimchok and Henderson, 28, of Irvine are two of 12 actors who performed “The Nutcracker” last week through the Big Dreamers Broadway Squad, a self-described special skills theater class for all ages run by Westmoreland Performing Arts.

Learning the lines, lyrics and choreography for a performance is no small task, and Marino is careful to address the actors’ concerns and keep the process fun.

“You’re allowed to use your script on stage, guys,” Marino said just before the curtains opened. “These songs are hard.”

“Fun and Joyful”

In Marino’s experience, actors often feel confident enough to leave their scripts behind the scenes.

She encourages actors to express their ideas and improvisations in class rehearsals.

“That was really sweet,” she told the group during one of several weekly rehearsals held before the Dec. 13 one-night performance. “Let’s do it one more time to feel confident in our choice.

“I love what you do. Let’s build on it.”

The actors’ ideas often find their way into the performance, Marino’s assistant Michelle Tomchek said.

“They amaze us with every single thing they do because … what you see in rehearsal is never what you see on stage,” said Tomchek, of Harrison City. “Every time we think it’s going to be a terrible failure, they somehow come up with something amazing by the time they put it on stage.”

Big Dreamers Broadway Squad began in 2014 after Marino was invited to lead a series of acting exercises for a group of autistic children. The hour and a half flew by, Marino said.

“I did a lot of improv and played with them a lot and it was really fun and joyful,” said Marino, of Greensburg. “It was just a game, really, to me.”

Rehearsals and performance give Alex Grubisa, who joined the band in 2016, a sense of community and purpose.

“It makes me feel more included, more accepted by all my peers,” said Grubisa, 30, of Greensburg.

With the help of the group, Mackenzie Deisher has overcome her fears of performing. She now writes and shares original songs.

“That’s scary — making original stuff and putting it out there,” Marino said. “Why is it scary?”

“Because I’m worried people will laugh at me,” replied Daisher, 22, of Greensburg.

“And do they ever laugh at you?”

“No, they love me,” Dysher said with a smile.

Support for adults

Tomchek, whose daughter was a longtime student of Marino’s, stepped in after the group was formed to help Marino understand the actors’ behaviors and ways of communicating.

Tomchek facilitates group home programs for people with developmental disabilities, but has worked a range of jobs in the special needs world throughout her career. She has experience as a teacher’s aide and support coordinator, a role in which she connects people with disabilities to appropriate resources.

Marino planned to open the Squad to people 18 and younger until Tomchek offered a different perspective, recalling a favorite student, Nathan Sipley.

Cieply, who died aged 26 in 2021, often followed his brother to Marino’s classes. Before long, he himself gets in on the action.

“We’d be doing a public performance somewhere and he’d just grab the microphone out of whoever’s hand and start singing,” Tomchek said. “He didn’t care. He was the biggest ham ever. He would just take over.”

But Cieply would have missed the team had it not been for Tomcheck’s intervention.

“I said, ‘So you’re going to start this class because of people like Nathan, who you love, but you’re going to cut him out of this class because of his age?'” Tomchek said. “And (Renata) said, ‘Oh, I can’t do that.'”

Community groups are especially important for people with disabilities who have graduated from high school, Tomchek said.

“When children are in school, they get many, many, many services. And then once they age out of school, that all goes away,” Tomchek said. “So I see a lot of kids go from being in school all day and being busy to just sitting at home and doing nothing.”

Transition programs

County support organizations like Regional Integrated Human Services connect with people with disabilities years before they graduate high school to make the transition to adult life as smooth as possible.

RIHS determines who is eligible for the programs and funding available to people with disabilities, said Amanda List, program manager for developmental services.

Determining eligibility is a long process, List said.

“There is no immediate way to call us, qualify, connect with a support coordination organization and be identified for funding and have services in a week. It’s been months,” she said.

“Families feel … like, ‘I don’t need another thing to do or another person in the house or another thing to keep up with because the education system meets my needs.’ But the importance of that overlap is, that the support coordination organization can then begin to plan for the future.

Eligible individuals are then connected by Westmoreland Developmental Services to one of eight supporting coordinating organizations to identify and address their specific needs.

The agency supports about 1,600 people, according to Sherry Tropp, deputy administrator for intellectual disabilities and developmental disabilities. Nearly 1,000 receive financial support through one of the county’s three waivers, and about 100 receive core funding from the state.

Westmoreland Developmental Services distributes about $140 million a year among its 90 providers, Tropp said, who offer accommodations such as assistive technology, educational support, caregiver training, medical support, residential services and community participation support.

“We want people to feel like they’re part of the community and that they’re contributing to their community,” Tropp said. “I feel like with the theater group, they definitely feel like they’re contributing to the community, entertaining the community.”

“They are more than class”

Without the actors realizing it, the class helps the actors maintain friendships and social skills like communication and eye contact, Tomchek said.

No matter what stage fright they experienced when they joined the Big Dreamers Broadway Squad, each actor has come out of their shell over the years, Marino said.

“They’ve been scared from their first show and then they’ve been through it and there’s something about all of them that just clicks,” Marino said. “They just want to do more, and more, and more, and they’re bolder and they’re very proud, which is as it should be.”

Marino said she grew up with the cast.

“I’m better because I’m with these people. They are more than a class. They are all my friends.”

Quincy Reese is a Tribune-Review contributor. Quincy can be reached by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .

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