In Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!, the song “The Farmer and The Cowman” claims the differences between the two shouldn’t prevent them from becoming friends. One might chase a cow and one might push a plough, but both have talents in their own right.
The actors in Tapestry Theatre Company’s upcoming production of “Getting to Know… Oklahoma!,” an abridged version of the classic show, sing the song with passion. It makes sense that they do; after all, Tapestry’s goal is to encourage people of all abilities to come together.
Established in 2011, Tapestry pairs actors with physical and intellectual disabilities in leading roles with neuro-typical mentors of a similar age as understudies. The pairs rehearse together, learn the lines and choreography together, and appear on stage together, where the understudy is there to extend as much support as the leading actor needs.
“There are so many things [in theater] that lend themselves to helping all these kids grow,” says Lynne Niston, who co-directs Tapestry shows with Elizabeth Goodrich. “In theater you learn responsibility, you learn respect, you learn the process of memorizing. But beyond that, with these kids, they grow in ways they’ve never grown before. … They shed those boundaries and shells.”
Lead-actress Katie Ellis and peer mentor Fiona Cubillas have been partners for five Tapestry shows. Because of her ability to make others laugh and to portray “sassy” characters, Ellis is often placed in comedic roles. She’ll be playing Ado Annie (one such comedic part) in the upcoming production. Ellis and Cubillas have become close friends, having sleepovers and making homemade pizzas, doing their nails and making craft projects together.
“I like to see the lead actors discover that they can do things they’ve never done before. And the mentors start to see other people through a different lens,” says Kevin Cubillas, Fiona’s father and a member of the Tapestry board.
Building these relationships also has an impact outside of the rehearsal space, the directors say. Many of the leads and understudies attend the same schools and will go out of their way to connect throughout the day.
“You have these kids who normally wouldn’t reach out to kids with special needs actually doing that,” Niston says.
Though some might assume singing and speaking are necessary skills for musical theater, Goodrich says there’s a way for everyone to be a part of the performance.
“One of the favorite actors of the audience and the cast a lot of times is a young man who is nonverbal and who is in a wheelchair. People just love being around him and watching him on stage,” Goodrich says.
Tapestry also emphasizes the production quality of their shows by providing actors with handmade costumes and sets. While the rehearsal schedule takes place over more weeks than other productions to allow time for line memorization, Niston says she directs Tapestry shows as she would direct any other production.
“[Society puts] boundaries on kids with special needs,” she says. “We tell them in some ways as a society that they can’t do this or that or that they’re not worthy of doing this or that. Our job is to make people realize that they’re worthy and they don’t need to have limits. They will push themselves. What we ask of them they achieve without exception.”
Kathleen Georgen, whose daughter, Kaily, has been involved in Tapestry since the beginning, says, “It’s the best therapy that my daughter could possibly have ever had. … It’s such a nice family that we’ve formed here.”
The idea of the theater company as a family becomes clear before rehearsal even begins. A group of leads and their peers chat about their weekends. Two girls wearing different shades of purple wrap their arms around one another. And as the theater fills with noise, laughter can be heard above all else.
“Everyone comes to Tapestry with a lot of different skill sets, and it’s great to come together and make something awesome,” says Kelsey Knapp, one of the peer understudies. “We all really love each other.”
On the Bill: ‘Getting to know… Oklahoma!’ — presented by Tapestry Theatre Company. July 13-17, Dairy Arts Center, 2590 Walnut, St., Boulder.