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Program for people with disabilities offers singing, dancing on Zoom

The Family Residences and Essential Enterprises, Inc. (FREE) theater day habilitation program in Old Bethpage is now offering daily activities and rehearsing their production of "Mamma Mia!" on Zoom. The program consists of 170 individuals with disabilities. Credit: Veronica Garcia, FREE

Taylor Huertas was born to perform. Anytime he shares a stage with his castmates, he's bound to be smiling from ear to ear while hitting every dance beat with precision.

“He loves music and dancing and everything about being in the spotlight,” said his mom, Kim Huertas, who lives in Old Bethpage.

Thanks to Family Residences and Essential Enterprises Inc. (FREE), an Old Bethpage-based not-for-profit organization that offers numerous services from housing to vocational training to people with disabilities, Taylor Huertas, 23, is getting that spotlight. One of its offerings is a theater day habilitation program, in which people like Huertas get free lessons in singing, dancing and acting.

ZOOMING RIGHT ALONG

Huertas was one of the cast members in “Mamma Mia!," his third FREE production, which was set to open at the end of March. The cast and crew, consisting of 170 people total, was about to enter tech week when the pandemic took center stage.

“This was difficult,” Kim Huertas said. “We think he was a little sad.”

Program director Veronica Garcia and her staff decided to find another venue for the dancing queens (and kings) of “Mamma Mia!”: Zoom.

When performances were suspended, the staff started calling their performers on Zoom one at a time — just to check in — making about 30 calls a day.

But just seeing each other’s faces wasn’t enough. The group dynamic was missing, along with the daily “creative and exciting” energy of theater, Garcia said.

Now, the group gathers every day on Zoom to sing, dance and learn together. Rehearsals for “Mamma Mia!” have resumed virtually, and the individuals also get to choose from options of daily activities, such as Zumba, yoga, karaoke, drumming and music history lessons.

Every Friday, the staff sends out a calendar of Zoom meetings for the week, along with the links for each session. Garcia said about 85% of FREE participants live with their families. "Some live in residential facilities," she added, "but most of them live at home. Having something to do and having purposes every single day is invaluable to our families.”

LIFE LESSONS

Along with giving participants the chance to perform, they get lessons in the academic basics and more.

“They learn about science and geography, they can improve their writing, reading, math and budgeting. It’s a mixture, but the bulk of the day is performance-driven,” Garcia said.

She added that theater offers important life lessons, too: “It’s a great way to get people out of their shell and challenge them.”

Participants have the option to work on any part of the theatrical process. “Even if you’re not acting or singing, we have a backstage crew that creates and changes the sets, costumes, makeup and wigs,” Garcia said.

But this year, there was so much interest in taking part in “Mamma Mia!” that the staff decided to double cast it. The company mounts two productions a year, with performances taking place at Studio Theatre Long Island in Lindenhurst and W.T. Clarke High School in Westbury, where “Mamma Mia!” would have premiered.

Rehearsing and performing on Zoom presents challenges. Garcia said volume is always a concern; making sure performers are heard, particularly when they sing together, is difficult. There’s also a matter of “figuring out a way to reach all participants without being in front of them,” she said.

“Everybody's learning curve is different,” said Garcia. “How do you present something in a way most people would understand? How do you distribute information everyone understands?”

Kim Huertas thinks the staff is doing a “tremendous job” in these circumstances. Taylor has been performing in FREE’s program since 2018. It was a perfect fit for him, following his high school graduation.

“He loves being on stage,” she said. “He can light up a room with his smile. You just feel it. He gets so happy and excited.”

She credits the FREE staff for fostering a creative space for people of all needs and abilities. Taylor's "Mamma Mia!" character, A.J., is “not a speaking part; it’s more singing and dancing,” Huertas said.

Garcia said the staff is “optimistic” about possibly staging the production live on Zoom, but they also hope to do an in-person performance “whenever it’s safe.”

Until then, the show will go on, virtually.

“A lot of hard work went into making this,” Huertas said of the Zoom activities. “And the staff really tries to hit every note.”

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