As a senior at Yeshivah of Flatbush Joel Braverman High School, I can tell you that one of the most inspirational activities is being involved in the annual dramatic production that our school prepares in conjunction with Yachad, the National Jewish Council for Disabilities. Going to Yachad events, being involved with Yachad as an organization, interacting with special needs individuals (especially in creative and challenging ways), always ensures that everyone ends the day with a smile on their face. It never ceases to amaze me how the simplest activities, just having a conversation or dancing with Yachad participants can bring so much joy to their faces. It brightens up their day, but more importantly, it also brightens up mine.
This year, I had the great honor of acting as director for the seventh annual Yachad-Flatbush play. I’ve participated in our Yachad productions for all four years of high school, so I was very enthusiastic about the opportunity to actually direct the play. My co-director, Lauren Srour, began working with me to develop this project in February after winter break, but this year we were without the supervision of an “adult” director; Lauren and I were still able to successfully lead a group of student directors, and some junior directors in training who will take over the job next year. It was a rare leadership opportunity that left all of us with tremendous feelings of success and accomplishment.
The first big step of any production is choosing a play, and we decided to go with Aladdin after receiving the script from a play that had been previously been enacted and test-proven. We were especially keen on this particular play because of both the setting and the parts. We intuitively felt that Yachad members would enjoy a story set in a magical world with highly imaginative characters and their overwhelmingly positive response confirmed our selection. We set practices every Monday for eight weeks, culminating with the performance, scheduled for Monday April 11th.
During the first practice, one of the most important and strategic things we did was to set aside time to get to know everyone; it was equally important to allow all the actors to get to know each other as well. This “getting to know you” effort was imperative for us, the directors, for two reasons: ensuring the participants received adequate attention and ascertaining that everyone had lines to say and was comfortable in their role. It was equally imperative that actors became familiar with co-actors to build a sense of community, after all, the word “Yachad” itself is about inclusion, a community where everyone has a “part to play”. So we engaged in a couple of “getting to know you” games so that everyone became familiar with each other before play practice was set to begin. As is always the case with Yachad activities, many individual participants came separately, but left together as one cohesive group.
Susan, a junior at Flatbush who participated in the play said, “Last year, I only interacted with one or two Yachad members, but this year I felt more comfortable branching out. Because I made that choice, I had so much fun doing it and a much better experience. I wasn’t just a few casual acquaintances; I feel I made friends for life.”
The next big step in the production was assigning roles. This was probably the most difficult aspect because there were limited roles, characters and lines, but everyone wanted to be able to speak and/or sing. Even if each person had one or two lines, the actors (being true actors) wanted more of the limelight! Our Flatbush students did an extraordinary job working with their Yachad peers; assisting them with memorizing, inflection, timing and cueing.
The last step was staging the scenes. Some participants experienced anxiety when it came to actually being on stage in front a large audience, but everyone worked together to develop a comfort level for the actors. We were able ensure that each participant had a “co-player” on stage with them if that’s what they wanted. In the end, everyone loved being on stage and being a participant in this spectacular event. Rightfully so, each Yachad member believed that he/she was the star of the show. When high school students and Yachad members come together, everyone is a star.
We had our dress rehearsal the Sunday before the show; everyone was ready to go with their costumes and props. We supplied swords for all the “guards” and even obtained items to sell for all of our “shopkeepers”. Finally, combined with live instrumentals, we reviewed the songs. It makes a big difference when songs that have only been rehearsed “dry” are then accompanied with live music, but everyone adjusted quickly and it sounded incredible! Once again, the dress rehearsal went well mostly because everyone involved was having so much fun.
The night of the play, actors began to show up two hours in advance to get ready. It was tense and hectic; everyone was running around, making the playbills, putting on makeup, and setting up the microphones and props. In the midst of all this chaos, I took a moment to stop and just watch; to feel all the energy and excitement in the air. Participants looked so happy and eager to go on stage and to put on the performance that they had been working on for two months.
I saw supportive parents, grandparents, siblings, other family members, and friends sitting in the audience getting ready to cheer the actors on. This made me even more elated and proud. At 7:30, our program began. At the start of the play we had some beautiful divrei torah given by two Yachad members, Libe Stern and Faige Weiss. Since Faige was shy and nervous, I remember standing up there together with her as a supportive presence, but she did an amazing job. We then had music led by some of our Yachad friends. Brian Adelstein sang the Star Spangled Banner, Chava Weitzman played Hatikva for us on the piano, and Seth Mandel played the drums. After that, it was finally show time. Actors took up their positions on stage, while Lauren and I took our places up front in the audience to watch. The whole show was like a beautiful dream and went off without a hitch
Overall it was a smashing performance, a huge success, and everyone in attendance felt it was an amazing experience. At the cast party after the play, we went around to congratulate everyone on the outstanding and spectacular job that they did. Deservedly, each person was elated, proud and overwhelmed with a huge sense of accomplishment.
Working with Lauren, all the Flatbush students, and the Yachad members was both rewarding and enriching. For me, the experience was invaluable in terms of an opportunity to learn about the challenges of being in a leadership position. For the 7th year in a row, Yeshivah of Flatbush Joel Braverman High School was able to come together with special needs individuals in our community and work on this incredibly creative project. May we continue to enrich each others lives, B’Yachad, for many more years in the future.