Founded in 1987 Black Cat Theater (BCT) brings 3 quality performances to the community annually. Showcasing the talent of people in the community is the foundation of BCT's mission, and they are doing just that. When Black Cat Theater sends out a casting call everyone in the community is welcome to audition, and when selections are made, they are made based solely on the individual’s ability to perform. Seems fairly typical... but for some community members, and Black Cat performers, it’s a special opportunity.
Students and LIVE members at the Berkshire Hills Music Academy, (a post-secondary learning community using music to help students with learning challenges develop skills for communication, independence and employment), are thrilled to have the opportunity to audition and earn a place in the Black Cat ensembles alongside their peers in South Hadley.
As members of the community with special needs, these chances are not always made available to them. Ben Monkaba, a cast member with Williams syndrome puts it like this, “I felt really grateful when I found out I could audition for the show. I couldn’t do that where I lived in Michigan. I saw Bye Bye Birdie and thought, wouldn’t it be cool if I got to do that? Auditions were exciting and nerve wracking at the same time. When I got invited to join the cast, I thought ‘Wow, now I have my chance’.”
While at the Berkshire Hills Music Academy, students use their strength in music to help develop skills in other areas. In addition to developing their expertise in music and performance, students at BHMA also work to improve social skills, activities of daily living, and vocational skills. Their hard work shows in the success they are realizing in the Black Cat productions and throughout the South Hadley community, where many are now working at local businesses and living semi-independently in South Hadley and surrounding towns.
Originally from Troy, MI, Ben now officially calls South Hadley his home town. For his parents, that was a difficult step, but watching his success at BHMA and visiting local establishments with him where everyone knows him and greets him warmly on every visit has made his choice easy to understand. For Ben the choice was easy... “This experience is life changing.”
Black Cat has a tradition of auditioning BHMA students for their productions, as both cast members and pit musicians; through the years individuals have been included in each area. Black Cat choreographer and producer, Dawn Larder explains, “In all the years we have had students in our shows, I/we have always streamlined the students into the production the same way as any other cast member. My personal feeling is they are "differently abled" and not disabled and they do not need to be treated any differently than any other person.”
The students love being included. In addition to Ben, the cast of High School Musical includes BHMA students, Jeremy Swartz and Rachel Fishbein. Jeremy and Rachel are “seasoned” Black Cat performers – this is Jeremy’s 3rd production and Rachel’s second. When asked what they like best about being in the cast, Rachel notes “It's a blast to be part of community (Black Cat) theater. It's a ton of fun ... everyone treats me with respect. I talk to my friends who are the other cast members during breaks in rehearsal. I am very excited to be in High School Musical onstage!” For Jeremy, who aspires to break into the NYC theater scene, Black Cat shows are especially important. “Being in a Black Cat Theater show is fun for me because I'm doing something that I want to be doing when I grow up. For me, it's also the next step after school plays because community theater is like real Broadway. You have to be lucky enough to be chosen to do this because the director can only choose a certain amount of people, and you have to be talented to get chosen. And all the other cast members also accept me for who I am.”
All the cast members get along well, and are teaching and learning from each other throughout the process. Alexa Flinker, who plays Sharpay describes working with the BHMA students. “Working with the students from BHMA has definitely been a lot of fun. Each and every one of them are incredibly talented and passionate about being on stage and it really warms my heart to watch them doing what they love. It’s also a pretty wonderful thing to work with people outside our own community and overall I think we have a lot of fun together.” Megan Goshea, who plays Gabriella tells us, “Ben, Rachel, and Jeremy have made such a big impact on not only my life but many of the cast members lives as well. They have worked so hard and continue to do so. They bring a very positive energy to every rehearsal never having anything but a smile on their faces, their happiness is contagious! Working with the kids from Berkshire Hills has been a very fun, enjoyable experience and I am proud to call them not only part of the cast but friends as well.”
Black Cat Theater is a great example of the benefits of a truly inclusive community... not just for the a few individuals but for everyone involved!
Black Cat Theater’s production of High School Musical has shows April 9-12 at South Hadley High School.