State funding remains vital for local theater supporting actors with disabilities

By Elyssa Kaufman, Staff writer

As director of the Prompting Theater, Brian Hagy does not know the exact disabilities his actors have and does not care to know. Hagy said the actors’ abilities are the focus.

The Prompting Theater is a theater in Champaign for adult actors with developmental and physical disabilities. The organization began in 1995 with a seven-member troupe. The theater now has 24 actors. It is organized by the Developmental Services Center, a partially state funded disability resource for the Champaign community.

Hagy is also the developmental instructor at the DSC. He works to support adults with disabilities in becoming more independent through work skills and career oriented activities.

“Everything that we do is professionally motivated,” Hagy said. “They (the actors) are looking seriously at the techniques that are involved in acting and now film acting as well.”

Hagy said the theater’s professional approach makes it different from other C-U disability resources.

Hagy feels many local social support structures tend to focus on doing activities for fun. Hagy said this is because communities still see those with disabilities as not being capable.

The Prompting Theater promotes skill development through acting, learning lines and performing on stage.

“If you are here in the Prompting Theater, it’s because you want to learn this technique,” he said. “It’s a professional choice.”

There is not one show type the theater focuses. Hagy said the actors have performed comedy, drama, Shakespeare, musical and even a black light show.

The actors write original scripts and adapt old ones. Each show is unique and guided by the interests of the actors.

After completing a show, the actors get paid for their work. Their work is seen as a job and meant to teach the real role of an actor. Hagy said the pay is not large due to funding reasons, with the Illinois state budget, grants are difficult to obtain.

Even with the resources this theater provides to the public, with the uncertainty of the Illinois budget, Hagy said the DSC, like the other disability resources, have had to ensure state funding continues.

Hagy said the DSC sued the state of Illinois last year to pay their bills and won.

“There is already a court order in the state of Illinois to shape how finances go for a person with a disability,” he said. “Before money would go to an agency.”

Hagy said in the ’90s, the DSC realized they could not be dependent on state funding or any one source. They diversified, and state funding now accounts for about 20 percent of their entire budget.

“Though it does make a significant dent if they (the state of Illinois) don’t pay, it’s not going to cripple us,” Hagy said.

The DSC believes people with disabilities should be given control over the state money they are given, rather than it going to an agency.

“If disability resources lose state funding, it means there is going to be a shortage of support for people with disabilities,” Hagy said. “Where we are at socially, in our community in Champaign-Urbana, we are a lot more progressive. We see the person before the disability — we make accommodations. It’s not the same outside of the area. What a lack of funding does is it drains the energy out of things.”

Lack of funding takes away the opportunity for disability resources to teach the public about disabilities and help the community with disabilities. But, Hagy is not worried about the DSC’s motivation.

“We’re going to fight it,” he said.

Money counts when it comes to the future of actors.

“You put in all of this time, you had to give up other paid work to come to rehearsals,” Hagy said.

The director said he sees social growth from the actors.

“Pretty much everybody that has come into the theater has been shaped by the environment of the theater,” Hagy said. “They come in shy, or unfocused. The theater helps them to ground that.”

Hagy then helps the actors take their confidence and new skills outside of the theater.

If an individual is having trouble completing a job for a company, Hagy reminds them of their acting training.

“If you get stuck in a step, well what do you do in theater to solve it when you forget your line?” Hagy asked. “You, take a moment, you step back, you look at it.”

Darren Wolken is one of the actors at the Prompting Theater. He explained he first wanted to join the theater to show off his talents and learn new skills.

“I’m an everything guy, I’m involved with everything in life,” Wolken said.

Currently, Wolken is looking forward to premiering the troop’s new movie which will launch on Youtube soon.

Hagy explained Wolken is focusing on emotions. Hagy helps Wolken to be “real” in front of an audience and actually feel the emotion.

Two years ago, Hagy said the troop put on a show that led to changes in the theater. The production was based on a Dr. Seuss song and then adapted into a mystery themed musical.

“This was the first show that the troop did in which they performed on stage with no staff on stage or back stage, they did it completely on their own,” Hagy said. “That was amazing.”

The shows are always recorded, but during this performance, there was a video malfunction that led the troop to discover film work. Hagy said they have almost fully abandoned the stage.

This video incident gave the troop the idea to re-perform and film the show.

“They saw that all their bad habits, like stuttering, that they were wanting to avoid on stage weren’t in the film because you can edit them out,” Hagy said. “They (the actors) really fell in love with film.”

Currently, the troop is learning techniques in filming, film acting and lighting and are now completing their fourth film.

Laura Bennett, director of developmental training at the DSC, oversees the Prompting Theater.

She said initially, the troop was called the “Prompting Theater” because actors had difficulties memorizing their lines and needed to be “prompted” by staff members.

“I have seen, with numerous people, a growth in confidence,” Bennett said. “You can hear it in their voices, they command and the projection has improved tremendously over the years.”

Bennett said she learned that everyone has abilities and areas of life that are more challenging. She sees the actors at the Prompting Theater as no different.

“Our agency does support people with intellectual disabilities,” she said. “This is a company that might have a little more difficulty, maybe with the written word or in understanding things completely, but they are very capable.”

She said Hagy has helped find opportunities for their actors outside of the theater to participate in vocal companies, film companies and other acting troupes.

“I appreciate his (Hagy’s) commitment, he’s very driven to make sure people get to know our guys and our guys get to know the arts community in Champaign-Urbana,” Bennett said.

The group is always adapting. Hagy said for some actors, especially those in wheelchairs, they are capable but have to adapt differently to the stage.

Hagy said they teach actors in wheelchairs to focus on awareness for stage directions and placement. He said he watches for actors in wheelchairs to ensure they can navigate the stage safely.

“Just because someone has a disability, doesn’t mean they can’t do something,” Hagy said. “Might have to switch something around, adapt things if you can, but a disability is not a limitation, it’s just one aspect of a person,” Hagy said.

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