Imagination Stage’s Pegasus Ensemble presents
The culmination of a two-year actor training program designed for students with cognitive or developmental disabilities
Article by Giovanna Yarn
On a Wednesday evening at Imagination Stage, the eleven members of the Pegasus Ensemble arrive with bright smiles as they greet one another with open arms, cheers, and laughter. Their evident comradery is electric, especially for director Kirsten Grorud. “This is one of the kindest group of actors I’ve ever worked with—they really root for one another and help each other backstage. I think the characters in this piece speak to the generosity and specificity of these actors.” The group has gathered to rehearse the world premiere of James Lex’s O, Wonder! A Tempest Tale, an adaption of William Shakespeare’s last written play. The Pegasus program is comprised of one year of training to develop acting and ensemble skills followed by a second year of rehearsal to perform a fully realized production.
To start rehearsal, the team creates a circle led by Kirsten, James Lex, Tim Norman (assistant instructor), and Emily Cerwonka (stage manager/access & inclusion apprentice). Grorud leads a warm welcome then asks the students to help recite their classroom rules. For a bit of fun, Cerwonka proposes a question of the day, this day’s being, “Would you rather be a set or costume designer?” Next, the ensemble participates in a vocal and physical warm up by practicing their stage voices and rehearsing their show’s choreography.
To maintain structure within their time together, the group always discusses an action item before tackling it. The schedule is visibly placed in the room as it is important to stay on task but also allows students to see what they can look forward to. Grorud asks the students to check off items on the rehearsal agenda as they are completed. To add to the tangible structure of the rehearsal while emphasizing the need for personal space, color spots – known as “Poly Spots” are placed on the floor. These also serve as reminders during the rehearsal of key places onstage that the actors need to land while going over blocking.
In preparation for their performance on March 1-3, the students rehearse O, Wonder! for a design run – a rehearsal where the team goes over the entire show with the professional designers and technicians in the room, in preparation for their part of the process. As the creative team of designers and administrators arrive to observe, Grorud gives a final pep talk to her cast, reassuring them that everyone in the room is there to support them. Finally, Grorud calls for places, and assistant instructors Lex and Norman go to their respective wings of the stage, as their role throughout the show is to keep order backstage, distribute props, and give the actors their cues for entrances and exits.
Watching this ensemble perform is a wholesome and inspiring experience. The level of professionalism in the rehearsal room is balanced with making sure each student feels supported throughout this journey. These actors are extremely passionate about their roles and are clearly having a great time – their energy and enthusiasm is evident both on and off stage. To show support for one another, high-fives are highly welcomed and encouraged!
With this ensemble’s wide range of talent and cognitive abilities, the playwright and director have carefully crafted moments for each student to be the star, allowing elements of the performers’ own personalities to shine through. For example, as one student is a nonverbal communicator, he creates a beat on a drum to respond to other character’s lines. The director’s choices and use of movement makes this performance captivating while ensuring the clarity of the story for the audience.
Most importantly, this ensemble proves that regardless of disability, all have the innate capability of rising to and exceeding expectations when given a nurturing environment with the proper tools and skills to grow.
Nikki Kaplan, Associate Director of Education at Imagination Stage, has seen the Pegasus program grow tremendously in the eleven years that she has been here. “In recent years, the Pegasus Ensemble has evolved to look more akin to our Acting and Musical Theatre Conservatories with one year of classroom work and a second year dedicated to a production. Also like the conservatories, our show selections are always unique; from contemporary stories and characters to Shakespeare!”
Kaplan also shared what she enjoys most about a Pegasus production. “Like any student group, I enjoy taking them through the entirety of the play building process; from casting to performance. This group is especially lovely to work with. I’ve never met a group of students who are so genuinely supportive of each other, so positive, and so affirming. It’s a joy just to be in the room, let alone to get to be creative and artistic with them.”
Performing an adaptation of one of William Shakespeare’s greatest works is not easy for anyone but this ensemble does so flawlessly. O, Wonder! A Tempest Tale is nothing but light, playful, and amusing. These actors are the heart of Imagination Stage – we welcome everyone to take the opportunity to view this piece as it is guaranteed to leave audiences smiling, inspired, and waiting to see what these talented students perform next!
Giovanna Yarn is an Institutional Development Apprentice at Imagination Stage, and this year’s recipient of the Rebecca Rice Community Engagement Grant. She is passionate about producing performing arts education programs for all students as it is vital and instrumental to adolescent development.
Photos by Jeremy Rusnock Photography, LLC.