By Jan Mercker
The annual VSA Loudoun spring musical has been knocking the socks off audiences for nearly 30 years. And this year’s production of “Willy Wonka,” featuring actors with and without disabilities promises to take the wow factor up a notch.
With direction from Karlah Louis of Main Street Theater fame and a cast and crew combining fresh faces and seasoned veterans, the show gives performers with disabilities a chance to shine in six shows March 9-18.
“Even though we have to make accommodations for some of our actors, we want to give them the true experience of having the professional director, the music director, the choreographer, the costumer … They’re still doing everything the same that a typical actor would do,” said Kellie Goossens, a program specialist at Loudoun County’s department of Parks, Recreation and Community Services who focuses on supporting VSA.
Accommodations can include everything from making physical adaptations (in a past production, designers built a car around an actor in a wheelchair) to having friends or siblings shadow a fellow performer for support.
VSA shows have always been family affairs, as non-disabled family members of actors with physical and intellectual challenges jump in to perform and support their family members.
Lauren Welsh, 32, has been performing in VSA shows since childhood. Welsh, who has Down syndrome, loves singing and dancing and plays an Oompa Loompa in this year’s production. Her niece and nephew, 13-year-old Jonah Welsh and 10-year-old Ava Welsh are also in the show. Jonah plays the young hero Charlie Bucket and his sister Ava won the juicy role of Veruca Salt, the spoiled brat who’s attacked by squirrels in a hilarious scene in the nut sorting room of Willy Wonka’s candy factory.
For Jonah and Ava, who have been performing in VSA shows for several years, it’s a chance to hone their acting chops while spending time with their aunt and reconnecting with friends.
“I like to see how everyone works together and how loving every single one of them is,” Jonah said.
At a recent rehearsal, fun and joy were in the air, as cast members laughed and joked while also getting in some serious hard work as Louis and her team hashed out multiple scenes.
“I love all the shows,” said enthusiastic Oompa Loompa Cristina Bronson, 22, of Ashburn. Bronson, who also has Down syndrome, is performing in her 13th VSA show. She loves reading and her favorite thing each year is to getting the script and working hard to memorize her lines.
Shows generally feature around 80 percent of performers with disabilities and 20 percent non-disabled friends and family members, says VSA founding board member Carolyn Snyder. The upcoming show has 49 cast members ranging in age from 8 to 55.
For Louis, the show’s timing between Main Street productions, was perfect and offered her a chance to take on a new challenge and work with an enthusiastic and talented group of performers.
“You don’t have to be non-disabled to be talented. There are kids with disabilities in this show who are massively talented,” Louis said.
The VSA experience has also given her a chance to take another look at her role as director in a setting outside her own thriving community theater company.
“There’s a sense [in professional theater] that there’s a product at the end of the rehearsal period there’s a product that must be prepared and ready to be put before an audience,” Louis said. “By working with VSA, it’s offered me the ability to look at the process instead of the product–because whatever the product is going to be when opening night comes, it’s going to be 100 percent of everything they’ve got. … The process and the people enjoying the process became my focus again.”
As a newbie to the VSA team, Louis is getting plenty of support from her backstage team made up of VSA veterans, including assistant director Dee Cashin, 22, a longtime VSA performer. Stage manager Briton Graber is a Loudoun Valley High School junior who got involved with VSA through her sister, a former VSA actor with disabilities. Graber’s sister has moved on and no longer performs with the troupe, but Graber loved the experience so much, she decided to stick around. Graber’s crew includes her friend and fellow LVHS junior Sarah Hinton and Dee Cashin’s sister, Rock Ridge High School senior, Carly Cashin.
“I think that I gain a lot of perspective. I think you’ll realize that the people here are some of the happiest people you’ll ever meet and I think there’s something we can all learn from that,” Graber said. “I know I can have a terrible day at school and I can come here and there’s this group of people with any number of different challenges, and they’re happy to be here and they love what they do.”
For many veteran performers, the annual show is a chance to reconnect with old friends—and make new ones.
“I love performing with everybody and being with my friends. It’s such a great cast every year,” said Gabri Lassa, 20.
Lassa, who has a hearing impairment, is performing in her ninth VSA show. This year, she earned the fun role of Mrs. Gloop, who encourages the gluttonous eating habits of her son Augustus, played by Harmony Middle School sixth-grader Matthew Murray who is relishing the (literally) oversized role.
And Louis underscores that the shows are not just a terrific experience for performers but a delight for audiences, as talented actors transcend disabilities with a supportive production team fabulous costumes and new sets designed by local artist Penny Hauffe.
“We are supporting them by putting them in beautiful costumes and a gorgeous set,” Louis said. “This has been put together lovingly and with great attention to detail. [The performers] know it and they appreciate it. They’re doing their part. We’re going to be presenting what VSA is known for: a full-to-the-gills, whole-hog production, which the audience will walk out of going wow.”
VSA Loudoun County presents Roald Dahl’s “Willy Wonka” at 7 p.m. Friday, March 9, Saturday, March 10, Friday, March 16 and Saturday, March 17 and with 3 p.m. Sunday matinees March 11 and March 18 at Franklin Park Arts Center, 36441 Blueridge View Lane in Purcellville. The March 10 show features sign language interpretation. Tickets are $15 for adults, $10 for children and seniors, and can be purchased online at vsaloudoun.org.