A new drama group made up mostly of special-needs students at Seattle’s Roosevelt High will give its first performance Thursday.

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A dozen students walked onto the Roosevelt High School stage Tuesday afternoon looking much like any other group of teenagers. Cellphones in hand, they dropped their backpacks and spread out on stage, with some complimenting one boy’s new haircut.

But these weren’t your typical drama kids. When one girl wanted to talk, she used her hands and a sign-language interpreter. Others didn’t speak at all. One girl walked slowly, her gait uneven because of cerebral palsy.

They are members of a new drama group at Roosevelt, open to special-education students and their typically performing peers. On Thursday, the group will give its first performance of a play, “Voices,” they helped create.

Coming up

“Voices,” a performance by Roosevelt High School’s “unified drama” club.

7 p.m. Thursday in the theater at Roosevelt High School, 1410 N.E. 66th St., Seattle.

Tickets are free, but donations will go to TeenLink, a crisis hotline for teenagers.

Called “unified drama,” the after-school club is based on a similar, successful sports program at Roosevelt and a similar drama class at nearby Nathan Hale High. It’s also part of a wider effort to include special-needs kids in more regular high-school classes, and regular extracurricular activities.

One goal is simply making sure special-education kids have some of the same opportunities as any other student. But Thomas Ledcke, the Roosevelt special-education teacher who started the club this year, has bigger aspirations, too.

Drama, he said, can teach social and emotional skills that some special-needs students, especially those with autism, lack.

Playing new roles can help students face old anxieties. Memorizing lines can reinforce letter sounds dyslexic students often struggle to remember. Acting out a range of emotions in a variety of scenarios can help autistic students practice the social flexibility that their disability makes it so hard for them to grasp.

“There’s many ways of learning, ” Ledcke said. “That’s our job as teachers, to keep on looking for that key.”

While the group is open to all, this year all but two are special-education students.

Hailey Turnure, 15, is one of the two — the other is a student teacher. Turnure already thought she wanted to work in special education one day, but now she’s sure.

“You don’t need to talk down to them,” she said, adding that most people with disabilities understand more than many think. “I’ve learned that there is really nothing separating us.”

A natural leader

Before Tuesday’s rehearsal started, Lorenzo Manuel, 19, walked past his classmates to a piano in the far corner of the stage.

Without a word, he began to play.

 

Lorenzo, who goes by just his first name, has struggled since he was young to relate to others and understand social situations.

In years past, he sometimes grew easily frustrated, tipping over chairs and desks in his worst moments. When teachers asked him to work, Lorenzo only wanted to draw. He likes writing songs more than essays.

Lorenzo credits the special-education program at Roosevelt for helping him cope with his autism. His brain is still like a puzzle, he said. It takes a lot of effort to figure out how the pieces fit together.

But onstage, Lorenzo feels free. He is one of a few of the club’s members who have performed in other school productions. He most recently sang and danced in Roosevelt’s production of “Kiss Me, Kate” last spring.

After five years of working with Lorenzo, Ledcke said he has seen a new side of him. Everyday situations can still get a rise out of Lorenzo, Ledcke said, but when working with other teenagers with special needs, Lorenzo is gentle and generous.

When it was time Tuesday to teach a dance routine he had choreographed, Lorenzo lugged an amplifier on stage and plugged a cord into an iPod.

“Watch me if you get lost, OK?” he said, and then started the music — a song he wrote.

“It’s OK to be a little different or strange,” the lyrics boomed through the theater. “Don’t be afraid to be yourself and not the same.”

Following Lorenzo’s lead, students lifted and dropped their heads in unison, then stood and raised their hands by their faces, swaying from side to side.

“That looks so cool,” Lorenzo said after the routine stopped. “Doesn’t that look cool, Mr. Ledcke?”

Ledcke, standing to the side of the stage with his hands behind his back, grinned. “It looks really good,” he said.

Gentle coaxing

Ledcke says it sometimes takes a little extra creativity to help the club’s members overcome their fears.

At one point during rehearsal, Richard Bruk, a 21-year-old student with autism, needed to be coaxed to get up on stage.

Bruk loves theater, and sometimes picks personalities to act out for the day. Other students have started calling him “The Director.” Ledcke plays along, knowing the persona helps Bruk feel more comfortable.

But Tuesday, Bruk balked.

“I’m not in the show,” Bruk said, standing offstage and hanging his head.

“Who told you that? Your agent?” Ledcke quipped. “I spoke to him this morning. You’re in the show.”

Bruk smiled. He walked with Ledcke to the center of the stage, to play his part as a theater director. But then promptly turned his back.

“This is a better way,” Bruk said.

“But the audience is out here,” Ledcke said, motioning to the hundreds of empty seats.

Bruk held his script closer.

Ultimately, with Ledcke’s gentle but unceasing coaxing, Bruk turned around, facing the rows that would hold hundreds on Thursday night. He repeated his lines word for word after Ledcke.

Ledcke knows he may have to walk next to Bruk during the show. He may even need to say the lines first. And he’ll probably improvise in a hundred other ways to help his mostly first-time cast brave the stage.

But the point of Thursday’s performance isn’t a perfect show.

Instead, Ledcke hopes it will give the audience a sense of what it’s like to live with a disability.

And for his students — he hopes that if nothing else, they will have fun.