Jul 22, 2021 11:01 AM

Hays theater camp allows disabled actors 'feel truly seen'

Posted Jul 22, 2021 11:01 AM
Mimes in the play "The Little Princess" react with excitement as they learn they have won an award from the Princess. The actors are part of the Center Stage Theatre Camp in Hays for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Mimes in the play "The Little Princess" react with excitement as they learn they have won an award from the Princess. The actors are part of the Center Stage Theatre Camp in Hays for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

By CRISTINA JANNEY
Hays Post

Some actors who aren't usually in the limelight are taking the stage this week.

This is the third year for the Center Stage Theatre Camp, which gives individuals with intellectual and development disabilities opportunities to express themselves on stage.

Thirty campers and 15 volunteers participated this year.

Annie Wasinger, camp director, said participants this year are a mix of newcomers and veterans who have been with the program since its first year.

The four-day camp will culminate tonight with a public performance at 6 p.m. at Celebration Community Church. No admission will be charged, but a freewill donation will be taken to benefit the ARC Park.

A camp participant dances along with volunteers during a rehearsal of "The Little Princess."
A camp participant dances along with volunteers during a rehearsal of "The Little Princess."

The performance will include the campers performing "Lean on Me" in American Sign Language, a one act play titled "The Little Princess" and a skit titled "The Little Pigs." They will conclude by singing "Take Me Home, Country Roads" by John Denver.

Wasinger said she hopes community members will come to see the performance and witness the joy of the performers.

"Anybody can get a lot out of theater, whether that be an increase in confidence or the ability to have a form of escapism and to put on an act and be somebody,"she said. "[They are] able to have that free emotion to be able to do something."

Many actors have a fear when they first take the stage, and this can be more pronounced with campers who have disabilities.

Center Stage Theatre Camp actors practice a scene from "The Little Princess."
Center Stage Theatre Camp actors practice a scene from "The Little Princess."

Wasinger said the camp allows the participants to been seen in a new light.

"In our society, there is often this inclination to look away from people with disabilities, this inclination to not talk about it or to not say anything or to treat them as subhuman," Wasinger said. 

"With theater, you put people front and center, and there is no chance an audience member can look away from them," she said. "For a lot of campers, this is the first time they are going to be looked at by a community member or a peer or another participant and feel truly seen and noticed."

The campers come together, sing, play games and have fun.

"It is also that they are going to be looked at for once," Wasinger said. "They are going to be seen for who they are genuinely and also get to be celebrated for their talents. 

"They get to be the most important person in the world, and there's not going to be anyone who looks away from them or shys away from the fact they exist."

A Center Stage Theatre Camp actress, center, uses an assistive device, which speaks her line.
A Center Stage Theatre Camp actress, center, uses an assistive device, which speaks her line.

The campers played a game on the first day called Two Minutes of Fame. Each camper can sing, act or perform in any way they wish.

"There are a lot of people who get up on the first day when we do our Two Minutes of Fame, and they get to go up in front of everybody, and they are so excited because for once everyone is paying attention to them," Wasinger said. 

"Everybody is there because they want to see them," she said. "I think it is innately human to want to be seen and heard and noticed."

Wasinger, 18, is a 2021 graduate of Thomas More Prep-Marian and will be a freshman at Wichita State University in the fall. She founded the camp when she was still in high school.

She hopes to continue to come home to help with the camp as long as she can but is working to apply for nonprofit status for the camp and organize a board can carry on the event if she can't participate.

Wasinger's parents took on the care of a man with cerebral palsy before Annie was born. Joel, who Annie considers a brother, is now in his 3os. She said Joel inspired her to organize the camp. He continues to be a camp participant.