Musical and Disabilities Center: Different Media, Common Message

Aug 6, 2014

Credit Guy Stephens / WNIJ

Friday, August 8, the world premiere of a new musical will be presented at Rock Valley College’s Starlight Theatre as a benefit for a Rockford organization that seeks to break down barriers for disabled adults.  It turns out that there is a strong connection between the theme of the musical “Angel” and the mission of the Barbara Olson Center of Hope.


Olson Center Executive Director Carm Herman walks down a hall of the former school building on Rockford’s north side where the center is housed, and ticks off each rooms as she passes.

“We have a science class that goes on. All of our participants rotate to different classes like at a college level because they are adults. This is where we cook our dog biscuits. They like to make them. And we have a computer lab.”

The tour illustrates the Center’s multiple goals. On the one hand, it provides classes as well as therapy to help people with various types of disability address the different hurdles, physical or mental, they face.  But it also provides opportunities for employment through several enterprises at the Center, including contracts with Woodward  and Hamilton Sundstrand. Herman says -- just like anyone else, disabled or otherwise -- the Center’s clients want to be productive members of society. They seem to agree. In one work area, Herman calls out to the group, "You guys also like earning your pychecks?" Their reply? A resounding "Yeah!"

Herman says many also do volunteer work. Herman says it’s all part of the Center’s aim to help the disabled integrate as much as possible into the community at large.

For some, this is more difficult. Herman shows me a room for a group with Rett Syndrome. It’s a chromosomal abnormality, and the progressive nature of the disorder means milestones can be achieved and then lost.  Almost every person with Rett Syndrome loses the ability to walk unaided, and speech and even eating can become nearly impossible. Herman says dealing with Rett is a constant battle, but they do what they can to help, including feeding and changing them, and getting them upright or out on the floor doing therapy.

“So that they aren’t in the wheel chairs all day long. It really helps them get a little more freedom. Helps them feel a little better with their body, and helps their whole body alignment.”

As the tour finishes, Herman says what happens at the Center shows the rest of the community something important:  the disabled are people, too, and not so separate from the rest of us.

“It doesn’t really matter what level of disability you have. We all have an ability. People with severe disabilities still have an ability to work, to live and give back to the community.” 

Cue Mike Webb, director of theater at Rock Valley College. Webb knows about the difficulties of raising someone with disabilities. It began two decades ago, after the birth of his younger daughter, Kaitlin. She began pulling up, and then stopped. There were other issues, and eventually she was diagnosed with atypical Rett syndrome.  Webb says Kaitlin is a very special child who has been, as he puts it, an angel to him and his family. Webb says, as a man of the theater, he dealt with the difficulties over the next 21 years in his own special way.

“I started writing this little journal that ended up turning into a small musical for my own therapy, amusement, whatever.”

Webb says he never intended to go public with “Angel.” But then he mentioned it in an interview for Northwest Quarterly magazine.  Carm Herman at the Olson Center saw the article, and asked him to produce it on stage. Webb was reluctant.

“And I was like, whoa, I wasn’t sure I wanted to do that.  I don’t want to share it. It’s very personal.” 

Webb relented, and went to work. It was a bumpy ride. He had to turn a somewhat disjointed series of scenes into a coherent stage production. And there were other issues. When his long-time collaborator Mike Mastroianni was appointed president of Rock Valley College this year and couldn’t devote enough time to the project, Webb had to turn quickly to another friend, Jim Chabucos, to help rework and finish the score on time.  Then there were technical hurdles to overcome to achieve his vision.

Webb details one event that was the basis for a scene in the play, and eventually led to an important part of the whole production. He and his daughter were at the Abilities Expo at the Rosemont Center, and he had set her down in a motorized wheelchair while they looked at a stander.   

“And she figured out how to work it. And we stood there, because we lost her for a moment, because, you know she was non-mobile, and we saw her manipulating herself around the Rosemont Center. And we were following her around.”

Webb says that night, and other nights as well, he dreamed of his daughter free of physical restraints, flying in her chair and then by herself.  Webb decided to use flight throughout “Angel.” Webb says making that happen on stage wasn’t easy, and he credits the production effects company he worked with for rising to the challenge. But he says it was important to him to show that someone with disabilities has an inner life of hopes and dreams that far exceed their apparent limitations.

Because -- like Carm Herman at the Olson Center -- Webb says that, by the end of the play, he wants people to see the disabled in a different light, and to realize what he learned from raising his daughter.

“These individuals with disabilities, if you let them into your world, your world becomes richer -- and that’s the point. These people are absolute gifts, and we have to cherish them always.”

“Angel” begins a very short run with its premiere Friday night, August 8, on the Bengt Sjostrom stage at Rock Valley College’s Starlight Theatre in a benefit performance for the Barbara Olson Center of Hope.