Merlene Davis: Outreach program gives students behind-the-scenes look at 'The Miracle Worker'

Herald-Leader columnistMarch 15, 2014 

It's not easy to get dozens of middle and high school students to sit quietly and listen to an adult for very long.

But Luanne Franklin, Opera House general manager, did just that as she spoke with a group of students about theater performances and what they can expect when they attend the Broadway Live performance of The Miracle Worker Sunday.

The students are participating in the Broadway Buddies program, which educates underserved youth about theater and gives them free tickets to see — for many — their first Broadway Live performance.

The program is in its third year and has the largest participation yet, about 100 students and chaperones, thanks to season patrons who donate their tickets and to a corporate sponsor, White, Greer and Maggard Orthodontists.

"The tickets you will receive cost $75 to $85 each," Franklin said to the group. "Someone thinks you are special enough to buy you a ticket."

"Oohs" could be heard from the appreciative group.

For the next 90 minutes the students learned the story behind The Miracle Worker and toured the Opera House.

Written by William Gibson, the play tells the story of Helen Keller who became the first deaf and blind person to earn a bachelor of arts degree with the help of her teacher Anne Sullivan, who was nearly blind herself.

The story begins when Keller, who lost her hearing and sight when she contracted scarlet fever at 18 months old, is about 6 years old and Sullivan, a recent college graduate, is 20. Despite a variety of obstacles, Sullivan teaches Keller to read and communicate.

Three cast members of the Montana Repertory Theatre, which is presenting the play, and a production manager answered questions and taught the group how to spell W-A-T-E-R in sign language.

The students learned that the life of a touring actor isn't all glamour. The cast, which began rehearsals for the play on Dec. 30, have six shows over four days in Lexington alone. They will perform 61 shows during this tour which runs from Jan. 25-April 13.

Students from nine programs — Common Good Community Development Corporation, Family Care Center, Race for Education, We Care Program, Arbor Youth Services, 4 Kids, East 7th Street Center, Ladies' Auxiliary of St. Peter Claver Catholic Church and Bryan Station High School — were allowed onstage to see the set and to see the view from that angle. They also could see their seats on the first balcony, where they would sit on Sunday.

Next came a visit to the actors' dressing rooms, complete with the bright lights and mirrors and costumes. And finally they were able to touch various words in Braille and later were given their names on a card in Braille.

To further drive home the point of Keller's situation and Sullivan's skills, Franklin asked the students to role play the two characters by using blindfolds and ear plugs. She held up an object which one person was to try to get the other to guess.

Aunquarious Bonds, 12, a member of 4Kids from Morton Middle School, was blindfolded, but quickly guessed money, when it was his turn to be Keller. He said his partner simply "rubbed two fingers together."

Laura Zimmerman, at teacher at the Family Care Center, a government service that helps young parents achieve self-sufficiency, said one of the students she brought to the Broadway Buddies event last year, will return this year as a chaperone for the new group.

"She was so impressed with the whole thing," Zimmerman said of the former student. "This is a first-class act. They do a fantastic job. The students are learning things through fun activities."

Zimmerman said she noticed last year that there seemed to be a correlation between the buddies program and improved academics with her students. That's why she applied again this year.

"It wasn't scientific," she said, "but there was an influence."

Nevertheless, it was an adult who seemed to enjoy the experience more than any of the students. India Greer, of the We Care program, squealed with joy throughout the tour. "This is something they should know," Greer said of the eight students she brought with her. "I'm loving it, too. I always wanted to be an actor myself."

The buddies program began in 2011 when Linda Carey, a longtime Broadway subscriber, donated her tickets to the production Shrek the Musical. Other subscribers and financial supporters followed her lead, and the program was born.

One Broadway Live performance is selected at the beginning of the season to be the buddies event and non-profit organizations serving youth are asked to submit requests for tickets.

Just before the group was to leave, Franklin held up a black T-shirt with white sign language across the chest. Each student was given one and asked to wear the shirt when he/she returned Sunday for the show. When she asked what the shirt's sign spelled, the students shouted, "Water!"

The group had remembered what they had learned an hour before. They indeed were listening.

Later, Marlisa Bedford, 11, said what impressed her was the story of a girl who was "a little blind, but who still could see so well," speaking of Sullivan.

"We don't think about doing things like that," she said. "I am interested in seeing what happens next."

Her friend, Jayla Humphrey, 12, said she had been to a play before and had visited a dressing room. Nonetheless, she was looking forward to Sunday.

"It will be fun," she said.

Merlene Davis: (859) 231-3218. Email: Twitter: @reportmerle. Blog:

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