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Fox Valley Repertory hosts theater class for special-needs students

ST. CHARLES – It doesn’t take much to get Elly O’Brien on stage.

Her dad, Dan O’Brien, realized that after his other daughter had just completed a play, and Elly, 13, of Geneva, hopped on stage right after the show.

“She likes to sing in front of a mic, and that’s sometimes her only way to communicate,” Dan O’Brien said.

He said that’s the reason he signed Elly up for Fox Valley Repertory’s new theater class geared toward children with special needs.

The program launched this year with a summer session and is now heading into its fall session at Pheasant Run Resort in St. Charles. Students are practicing to put on a puppet show of “Three Billy Goats Gruff” at the end of October.

The idea for such a class came about through a group discussion among Fox Valley Repertory leaders, said education manager Tracy Whiteside. Early fall classes go through the end of October, and she said there’s still time to sign up. Later fall dates start in November and end in December.

“We have had special-needs children in our classes, and we felt the community was being really under-served,” she said. “There’s really nothing else like this in the area.”

The classes focus on youth students with developmental disabilities, such as autism, Down syndrome or any intellectual disability.

Show director Kathleen Shackelford spent time Saturday – the first day of the fall session – getting to know her new students by introducing various aspects of theater, especially those that trigger sensory and tactile responses, such as puppet designs, music and interpretive dancing.

Shackelford, who has worked with special-needs students at Community High School in West Chicago for nine years, said exposing special-needs students to the arts is one of the most important aspects of the class.

“There should be something for everyone,” she said. “Clearly, the girls have talent and love to express themselves.”

She said audiences probably will be surprised at how evolved the play will be by the time students put on the show. Currently, the play is written out on a template filled with ideas about making puppets, play scenery and creating tickets for the show.

Student Becky Burns, 14, of Warrenville, already has been in several plays, including playing a mouse in a “Cinderella” musical, as well as participating in a weeklong choir camp in Carbondale. Her dad, Richard Burns, said Becky also likes to write play scripts.

“I think doing this is a great chance to learn how to cooperate and follow directions,” Richard Burns said. “A lot of acting is following directions and just learning how to get along with people.”

Whiteside said theater is a “great, creative way” for students to learn how to communicate, socialize with other students and express themselves in a safe environment.

Dan O’Brien said Elly has some experience performing rhythmic gymnastics with the Special Olympics, and she also likes to perform and sing in front of mirrors at home. She responded particularly well in her first class to playing music and dancing.

“I signed her up for the class to help her more with social skills,” he said. “It’s good for her. It helps her engage and talk more.”

On the Web

For information about Fox Valley Repertory’s theater class for special needs students, visit

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