Gymkhana theater club promotes inclusion through musical performance

One of the best methods of removing social barriers between children with and without disabilities is creating inclusion programs.

A northwest suburban theater club has children of all abilities performing together. Four years ago, Orion Couling, artistic director, started Hanover Park's Gymkhana as a personal mission.

"I've always wanted my shows to be open to anyone who wanted to be on stage," said Orion Couling. "So it didn't matter where they were coming from or what the situation was we've provided scholarships fro people, we've provided lots of different opportunities for children to really enjoy doing theater."

This spring they performed Disney's high school musical. Twenty-five individuals with Down syndrome and 15 non-disabled children were part of the cast.

"Moria, who plays Gabby, has special needs and Nick, who plays Troy, is a typically functioning child," said Couling. "The whole point was just to really, really mix them together so people were using different abilities and finding a way to work with each other."

Orion worked with Ups for Downs, a parent support organization. Beth Morgan had two daughters in the play, Moria and her non-disabled sister Elizabeth. This was not just a joint opportunity for both sisters.

"Part of the… idea of inclusion is you are in the regular classroom, and sometimes they don't get exposure that they would normally get of … other kids with Down syndrome," said Couling. "So we took this opportunity here to be able to expose her to other children who have Down syndrome like her."

The Nolan family has three sisters in the musica --Brittany, 18, Lindsey, 16 and Kelsey, 13.

"I love it," said Brittany.

"It's hard memorizing everything," said Lindsay.

"They like me, and I have my sisters cause I love you very much," said Kelsey.

For Nick Lamore, who plays Troy, this was a new experience.

"I think after this... I definitely view anyone with a challenge or disability in a different view, and it's just a great experience," said Lamore.

Although, the high school musical at Gymkhana took place last month, Couling is working on next year's.

"We are right now seeking out organizations that would like to do something similar to this. We feel Gymkhana, the studio that's running this, has been really amazing success," said Couling. "So we're looking for other groups that want to do a similar partnership."

Gymkhana's theater program is designed for children from ages eight to 21, with and without disabilities.

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