Germantown, Tennessee--April 22, 2019--“Three-two-one-story-DONE,” a crowd of mixed ability students chanted at the conclusion of a particularly raucous rendition of Little Red Riding Hood. The Story Machine, a new theatrical touring group coming from Houston High School, has just concluded their four-show tour and are celebrating with a friends and family performance. The students, ranging from advanced acting scholars to students with both physical and intellectual disabilities are beaming with pride and joy backstage as they get ready for their final curtain calls.
Stops on their theatrical tour included all of the Germantown Municipal elementary feeder schools. The group seamlessly wove commonly told fairy tales and other classic stories like Where the Wild Things Are. Of course, each story had a modern twist or played on the strengths of the individual actors. But, the real learning was what took place over the school year leading up to this point.
“We just did a play called the Story Machine,” said student Baylee Davis. “I got to make crazy machine noises,” she shared. Baylee’s favorite part was when they re-imagined Little Red Riding Hood and the wolf got to scare some of the other actors. She also enjoyed pretending to be a monkey.
Through a generous grant awarded by the Germantown Education Foundation, The Story Machine has completed a year-long experimental project focused on mixed-ability theater inclusion. The grant included funding for guest artists to work with students, some money for props, and travel expenses for busing. This is another example of why Houston High School is becoming a state leader in establishing opportunities for students with disabilities—including the Sparkle Cheer Squad, United Sound, and Horizons Field Day. Adding a mixed ability theater troop was a logical step.
The idea was born out of lunchtime conversations between special education teacher Laura Freeman and Houston High Theater teacher Kell Christie. “What’s great about theater is that it can really build on your strengths—whether you can talk or sing or dance or use movement—everybody has something they can contribute to it,” said Freeman. “The Story Machine is another true example of inclusion,” said Freeman.
The students from Ms. Freeman’s class joined Ms. Christie’s Advanced Acting Class two days a week beginning in August. Advanced Acting student Abby Wingfield enjoyed the marriage of the two classes. She was partnered with Baylee as a theater mentor. To her, this portion of the class represented a great stress relief and a fun time. “Getting to know Baylee, and just having a great time—I feel like we all became friends,” said Abby.
Kell Christie has an even deeper connection to the Story Machine. “My dad used to run an improv story theater troupe at Freed Hardeman University,” she said. Besides seeing the obvious connections between skills being taught both her advanced acting students and students in Ms. Freeman’s functional skills classroom, this project was personal triumph. “Improv Story Telling is problem solving, it’s communication, it’s all of the skills you want young actors to have in one artform,” said Christie.
Next year, Christie and Freeman hope to expand the program to visit entities outside of GMSD schools, like libraries or children’s hospitals.