2017-11-01 / Features

One for All and All for Good

The Centre Region’s residents with Down syndrome take the stage to sing, dance and find their voices.
Robyn Passante

Performers and peer volunteers with the For Good Performance Troupe entertain the audience during a recent performance.Performers and peer volunteers with the For Good Performance Troupe entertain the audience during a recent performance.

By the time the familiar strains of the Frozen favorite “Let It Go” come over the loudspeakers, Dayna Baldwin has been singing on stage for over an hour. Having gone through a set of production numbers with her peers in the

For Good Performance Troupe during their Saturday morning rehearsal, she is now on Delta’s auditorium stage as a mentor to younger performers with the For Good Beginnings Troupe.

The 17-year-old State High student exerts patience with the little ones, leading by example for what choreographed movements come with the lyrics, which she belts out with gusto.

“Here I stand
In the light of day
Let the storm rage oooooooooon….”

Dayna finishes the tune with a flourish — “The cold never bothered me anyway!” — and abruptly turns her back on the audience, already prepping for the next number. She seems to not notice or mind the chaos around her, the 10 other people on stage of varying ages and abilities who are all into the routine though not necessarily all in tune or in step.

In this troupe, the smiles — in the audience and on the stage — are what matter most.

“Dayna has trouble with verbalization and the singing brings out her voice,” says Diane Baldwin of her daughter, who has Down syndrome. “It’s a great feeling to hear her.” In Baldwin’s smile, you see the value of the For Good Performance Troupe, a musical theatre and performance group for people with Down syndrome, sponsored by the Centre Region Down Syndrome Society and the Delta Program.

It is led by its founder Krista Wilkinson, a professor of Communication Sciences and Disorders in the College of Health and Human Development. She is assisted by a choreographer, Penn State student Megan McGrath, as well as co-director Rocky Landers; all three volunteer their time to the endeavor.
Wilkinson started the troupe in 2012 after her own children, Matt and Abby, got involved in musical theatre through Singing Onstage and she saw the benefits of that activity for her own kids.

“It occurred to me that people with Down syndrome should be given the same opportunities,” says Wilkinson, who had long worked with children and adults with Down syndrome in her professional life.

So Wilkinson teamed up with the Centre Region Down Syndrome Society to offer a unique performance troupe for those with Down syndrome, complemented with a smaller group of volunteer peers from the Delta Program, Penn State and State High who share the stage but not the spotlight with their singing co-stars.

Sara Brownson’s sons are both involved with For Good; Kaleb, 15, is a performer, and Carter, 11, is a peer volunteer.

I like it because I’m a rock star. A practice rock star.”
    —Jackson Lippincott

“Kaleb would do it every day of the week if I let him,” Brownson says of rehearsing with For Good. She helped Wilkinson get the troupe started a few years ago when Wilkinson mentioned to idea to her while working with Kaleb on his speech.

“It’s been interesting to see the progression [of the performers],” Brownson says. “The ones who started in the back, now they are right up front, singing and dancing. It’s amazing to see the transformation.”

Dayna is among those who’ve transformed, Wilkinson says.

“When she started she was very shy. She loved to sing at home, and that’s why she signed up. Within a semester, she was out there in the front, and she knows everything,” says Wilkinson, who asked Dayna to become a mentor to the youngest performers. “You just see her blossoming in this leadership role that’s really awesome.”

The smaller For Good Beginnings Troupe has just two young performers this semester, along with a handful of peers and mentors like Dayna, who perform with the main troupe but stick around to help the little ones with their songs as well. The main troupe currently has 20 performers and 10 peers.

Performers range in age from about 14 to 64 and include a range of singing abilities and showmanship.
The troupe performs one main show each semester, for which the public is invited. But they also have performed around the area for a variety of events, including Strawberry Fields’ annual gala, the Hoops for Hope Basketball tournament, the annual Centre Region Down Syndrome Society Buddy Walk, Mount Nittany Middle School’s Drama Club Cabaret and a TV segment on WTAJ Live.

“Nobody’s intimidated,” laughs Wilkinson of her troupe’s response to big crowds or unfamiliar venues.

“These kids are so talented. They hear [a new song] once or twice and they just learn it.”
Each semester, performers and peers are given packets with a CD of the songs they’ll perform as well as all the lyrics to learn.

“Krista does a really good job of selecting a wide range of music,” says Eric Lippincott, whose 14-year-old son Jackson is a For Good performer. “Jackson’s really outgoing. He likes the limelight. He likes to be on stage.”

After rehearsal, Jackson echoes his father’s sentiments when asked his favorite song to perform.
“I like ‘Greased Lightning,’” says Jackson, a ninth-grader at State High who plays the cymbals in the marching band. “I like it because I’m a rock star. A practice rock star,” he concedes.

Lippincott serves on the CRDSS board, which supports the troupe by paying for its costumes, group T-shirts, performance after-party and other incidentals. The board also paid for a new portable speaker system the group uses in Delta’s auditorium.

The State College Area School District’s Delta Program, Wilkinson says, has been an outstanding supporter of the troupe. Delta students have formed a For Good service committee that helps make sets and costumes, and provides peer support to the troupe. The committee is headed up by Abby Wilkinson, 16, who took over when her brother, Matt, graduated from State High in 2015.

Theater is an open community, it’s very accepting… I think that’s what [my mom] wanted for them — she wanted them to feel a part of something.”
—Abby Wilkinson

“Theater is an open community, it’s very accepting,” says Abby, a junior in the Delta Program and a member of State High Thespians. The teenager says she had a hard time fitting in when the Wilkinson family moved to State College from Boston in 2008, but getting involved in theater gave her a sense of belonging. “I felt a part of something, and I think that’s what [my mom] wanted for them — she wanted them to feel a part of something.”

Being part of something so fun is infectious, and the audience typically gets into the music, some standing up to sing and dance in the aisles during performances, Lippincott says. And performers are given the freedom to be as front-and-center as they please, with simple costumes designed for easy on and off as well as giving the show a dramatic flair.

Adding costumes into the mix transforms everyone into a star.

“There are 12 beauties and 12 beasts on stage for Beauty and the Beast,” Wilkinson says. “Everybody wants to be a beauty or a beast, so everybody gets to be a beauty or a beast.”

Other costumes borrowed from State High Thespians or Penn State are used by volunteers and peers, who round out the Beauty and the Beast cast of characters and hold props onstage.

A typical For Good rehearsal includes simple costume changes, happy volunteers helping performers, and plenty of smiles.A typical For Good rehearsal includes simple costume changes, happy volunteers helping performers, and plenty of smiles.

Rupert Johnson, a doctoral candidate at Penn State, has been volunteering with Wilkinson’s troupe for the past three seasons.

“She puts so much time into this, and is definitely a big advocate for people with disabilities,” Johnson says. “She’s a researcher in Communication Sciences and Disorders, so not only does she give up her time for this, she’s also invested in research to help people with communication disorders communicate better.”

Rehearsal ends with the same song they end each performance with, “For Good” from Wicked, from which the troupe got its name.

“There’s often a lot of hugging during this song,” Lippincott says, and he’s right.

As the music echoes through a mostly empty auditorium, Dayna and her female co-stars stand together on one side of the stage. They point toward the smattering of parents and peers in the audience, and at each other, as they sing: “…because I’ve known you I have been changed for good.” •SCM

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