By GREG HAYES, firstname.lastname@example.org
Imagine, for a moment, if you will, the fabric of any fairy tale.
At its core lies one specific concept that, despite the story and its characters, will perpetually drive the plot in one way or another without fail: magic.
But throughout the past year, the Williamsport Area High School's production of "Beauty and the Beast" generated its own magic outside the realm of the tale's fantastic world, according to drama instructor and director Marie Fox.
That's because the play was about an eight-month long collaborative effort between the high school's drama and special needs students - an effort that came to fruition last Wednesday in the school's auditorium.
The partnership is nothing new to the high school, as this year marked the ninth year the two departments have merged, and for some of the students, particularly those with special needs, it was yet another chance to showcase their growing talent.
And that is where the play's magic, at least for this production, can be found.
"It is so amazing to witness how much they have grown," Fox said. "Their teachers tell me that they do more for us on stage than they do in the classroom. That is the magic of theater bridging the gaps, and why I believe in it so much."
The play starred Alexis Cohen as "Belle" and Doug Getgen as "Beast," and was partially funded by a grant from the Williamsport Education Foundation.
"Students like Doug Getgen, who have been in four shows, have become more confident and expressive," Fox said. "They were so apprehensive before. Now, they're superstars. I even joke with them about getting an agent and having a private dressing room."
Their time spent working on these shows has sparked in interest in some of the special needs students to become more involved in the Drama Club and other activities around the school, Fox said.
"I think that this has given them so much confidence," she added.
This year's decision to bring "Beauty and the Beast" to life was chosen, not only for its great characters, but also for its relevancy to the theme of the whole idea of the production: seeing people for what's on the inside.
"What goes through my mind first when I am preparing students for this kind of production is how can I make them the most successful, and how can I get them to work together as an ensemble when they initially see only each others' differences?" Fox said.
Reminding herself that it takes time, Fox said she knows the two groups eventually learn to be friends.
Using sensitivity training for her drama students helps to provide an easier segue into working with the special needs students and the challenges they might face along the way, she said.
"I had each of the special needs teachers talk to my students about their specific class of students without (them) being in the room," Fox said. "That way my kids could ask questions and not feel as if they couldn't be candid."
To help strengthen their tolerance and understanding, Fox said she showed her students the 2003 movie "Radio," starring Cuba Gooding Jr., which is about a football coach who befriends a mentally-challenged man, and the development of that friendship over several decades.
"It's funny, but somehow kids always know how to do this better than adults," she said. "They are a little afraid at first, but they are willing to try, which is all I need to get them hooked."
From there, the rest is history, and the year-long project culminated in what Fox described as an "absolutely wonderful" performance.
"It wasn't perfect, but that is what made it so amazing," she said. "The kids did more than they ever thought they could. They showed everyone that despite their differences, they can really do big things. They also illustrated that when you imagine the possibilities, you don't see the impossible."
Autistic aide Karen Benson and Brenda Yahner, a life skills aide, witnessed the enjoyment and spirit seen in the students as they performed.
"If you looked into the kids' eyes while they were performing, their eyes just shine, because they are enjoying it so much," Benson said. "It makes it worth it."
After the play, Larry Newman, 16, who played the wooing and antagonizing "Gaston," was one of those students who beamed with excitement.
"We did an awesome job," he said. "I'm proud of all of us."
Ema Drnda, 18, was one of the storytellers. She is an exchange student from Bosnia who took part in this kind of production for the first time.
"I loved this experience and I am going to miss everyone so much," she said.
"It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience," added Tyler Cochran, 15, who played "The Baker." "I got to meet new friends and new teachers. It was an awesome experience."
At the end of yet another successful production to cap of the school year, Fox said this is a project that is "always an emotional endeavor for me."
"I can't do this without letting these kids into my heart," she said. "This year was even more emotional because of the nature of the show. I am in awe of their courage and their willingness to not let anything stand in their way."
To view a musical montage of rehearsal sessions in action, created by former student Jordan Miller, visit the high school's website at www.wasd.org.