Teacher Starts ‘Inclusive Theatre’ For Special Needs Students To Shine And Build Lasting Friendships

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Early Light Academy in South Jordan had audiences moved by their memorable performance of Disney’s “Frozen,” receiving the kind of praise that melt’s a theatre teacher’s heart.

“You cast my child perfectly!”

“You made my daughter shine as herself!”

“You celebrated her voice!”

The performance was extra special because theatre teacher, Toni Butler, was able to seamlessly include students with special needs, who had otherwise never had the opportunity to participate in this type of production.

Student actor playing Elsa from Disney's Frozen stands on an ice block prop on stage.
Courtesy of Toni Butler
Three girls in costume sit on stage watching other actors.
Courtesy of Toni Butler

“I had the idea in my heart for years but didn’t know how to implement it,” Toni tells Love What Matters. “Then my friend, Chelsea Lopez, created Inclusion Cheer (a cheer group for individuals of all abilities and disabilities), so I approached her with the idea of Inclusion Theatre.”

Chelsea was thrilled to collaborate with Toni on a plan to bring these students into the theatre fold in a beautiful, loving way. They came up with a “buddy” system, pairing 13 students with special needs with other students who could help them learn their parts and the workings of the production.

“I think the biggest obstacle was making sure we presented Inclusion Theatre with respect and love. I truly believe we did,” Butler says. “When we cast the inclusion actors, we looked at their strengths (not their weaknesses) and cast them in parts that would make them shine! My heart cried with joy when I heard the parents say things like, ‘You cast my child perfectly!'”

Student actors in Frozen performance stand holding trays as castle staff.
Courtesy of Toni Butler
Sven and Cristoff characters stand on stage together.
Courtesy of Toni Butler

“When I presented my vision to Chelsea, I told her I didn’t want the inclusion actors to stand out as ‘inclusion actors.’ I wanted them to fold in seamlessly to the production. In the end, that is what happened! Chelsea said she had never seen anything like this; she called it the ‘most inclusive’ experience she had seen! I tear up now thinking of this comment.”

Even more heartwarming than watching these students shine on stage, was witnessing the beautiful friendship that blossomed between the two casts.

Student actors playing Anna and Elsa from Disney's Frozen sit on opposite sides of a door and sing their parts in an inclusive theatre performance.
Courtesy of Toni Butler

“We became a family,” Toni tells Love What Matters. “At first, the Early Light Academy actors were awkward and didn’t know how to talk to the inclusion actors. But with training and time, they were crying on closing night… not because it closed so much as they had to part ways for a bit.”

The production was such a success and a positive experience that the Early Light Academy has plans to do another Inclusion Theatre this fall, this time performing Cinderella, sure to be another magical performance!

Silhouette of students dancing on stage in an inclusive performance of Disney's Frozen.
Courtesy of Toni Butler
Student actors dance on stage in inclusive theatre performance.
Courtesy of Toni Butler

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