Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

Expressing Artistic Gifts

Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

Expressing Artistic Gifts

Article excerpt

Florida Studio Theatre's production of "Dancing Lessons" has drawn sold-out audiences curious to see Mark St. Germain's play about a college professor with high-functioning autism who seeks lessons from an injured Broadway dancer.

But in fact, FST has been a home for performers with autism -- and a variety of other special needs -- for more than 20 years. The VIP program -- an acronym that came from its origins as a program for the visually impaired and stuck even after admittance parameters expanded -- meets one afternoon a week during the fall and spring and two weeks every summer, providing a chance for the participants to act, draw, dance, sing and explore their creative gifts.

VIP is unique in that students never "age-out or experience- out," says Education Director Beth Duda, who has led the program from the start. Thus the group includes Ella Quaid, a shy and slender 11-year-old who hides behind her glasses and long hair, and Laurel Audet, a cheerfully voluble 29-year-old who joined when the program began in 1995 and stayed, even after she got a job.

"I earn 'cabbage' (money) at Goodwill," Audet says, unprompted. "But I would like to work at FST."

Duda runs the sessions with an inclusive warmth and defined yet tolerant boundaries.

"If you can be quiet, you must be quiet," she says cheerfully when the noise level gets a little out of hand.

Duda admits she was initially intimidated -- "All those labels can be daunting" -- but by now she's learned to handle anything swiftly and with grace, turning unusual questions into learning experiences and startling outbursts into opportunities for laughter and community.

"We let them blossom in their own time and their own way," she says. "We meet them where they are and learn with the kids. It's become joyful. They love it and we do too."

On a recent day, the VIPs were visited by a "special guest" -- Vanessa Morosco, who plays Senga Quinn, the injured dancer in "Dancing Lessons." Morosco joined them for the "Question of the Day" ("What's your favorite ice cream?"), applauded as they did a dance routine to the Jackson's Five's "A-B-C" on the "Dancing Lessons" set, and watched as 23-year-old Becky Jaffer expressed in a poem her feelings about people who deride others who are "different. …

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