Jesters Gives Actors a Unique Chance to Shine

By Rebecca Flannery
Special Contributor

One month out from the Valentine’s Day weekend premiere, members of Jesters, the Highland Park United Methodist Church special-needs theater troupe, made adaptations to their original time-period murder mystery script. Will they be ready for opening night? Time Will Tell.

That’s the title of this year’s Jesters production, for which the cast is comprised of 36 actors ranging in age from 18 to 60. While not everyone is able to participate with a speaking role, director Lisa Schmidt is sure to work with the roles to meet the needs of each member.

“In this theater, we adapt to the ability of the players,” Schmidt said. “[During rehearsal], we’re working constant modifications into the script. We’re always on our toes.”

During the beginning phase of the annual Jesters production, cast members sit down with Schmidt and decide what theme, setting, and characters they want used in their original script. Overall, it allows them a chance to convey a specific message to the audience, according to Liz Irwin, Jesters program coordinator.

“They help write songs around themes they pick,” Irwin said. “That’s what’s so unique about Jesters — they have such a role in the creativity.”

Keeping with the theme of time, the play spans over 100 years and the bulk of the play is spent in 1916, Irwin said.

“It’s an invitation for the audience to consider what being wistful about the past means for the present,” Irwin said. “If change is a good thing, should we embrace it?”

Beginning in September, the cast and volunteers met each week to prepare for their two shows in February. Among those attending the rehearsals were parents of the cast. Marilyn Carter said she came to pay special attention to the songs so she could play them for her son when they practiced his lines at home.

“They try to challenge everybody,” Carter said. “This time he’s supposed to have a French accent, so we’ve been working on that together. We’ve worked pretty hard.”

Carter’s son, Jason, plays Hercule Poirot — a fictional Belgian character created by Agatha Christie in 1916. This role fits the theme the cast wanted — to use cultural references of the early 1900s. Included in the repertoire are Babe Ruth, Amelia Earhart, and Charlie Chaplin.

“With theater, you get to be someone you never thought you could be,” Jason said. “You get to show the audience something you can do instead of what you can’t.”

Jason said he’s been acting since his years in elementary school. Now 29, he’s gotten the chance to perform in adaptations of some of theater’s most revered productions, from West Side Story to Oklahoma. Carter said the years in theater have helped tremendously with Jason’s speech therapy.

Cheryl Vandiver, director of special-needs ministry at HPUMC, said when Jesters began six years ago, there was something unique about it.

“The cast builds such strong relationships, so the last day of production is really hard,” Vandiver said. “There’s a sense of ownership they have in it all the way from beginning to end. It gives those who have an interest an opportunity to show their skills.”

As for February’s production, Schmidt said she’s optimistic about the result.

“It may look chaotic now, but it’ll come together,” Schmidt said. “I don’t know how it does, but it always does. We truly never feel ready.”

Time Will Tell premieres at 5 p.m. on Feb. 13 and 14.

“The audience can expect to be full participants in the creativity,” Schmidt said. “The cast is taking a big risk by being on stage, and the audience wants so badly for them to succeed. That energy is palpable from the stage.”

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