In this post, Elise Hopkins answers our questions about her involvement with Unified Theater and how she has helped create awareness around the importance of inclusion through the performing arts.
Can you provide some background on how you became a student leader for Unified Theater?
I actually met Unified Theater's founder, Micaela Connery, when I was in sixth grade. I was performing in my middle school's production of Tom Sawyer, and she was a high school volunteer, doing makeup for all of the students in the show. We started talking about Unified Theater, and I thought the program sounded amazing. We decided that I should start the program at my middle school.
What was your main inspiration for wanting to become involved?
I had been involved in theater for most of my life by that point. Every year, when auditions came around, everyone was stressed and the entire process became a competition. At Unified Theater, participants don't compete for parts. They write the show to fit every member's talents. It truly is a focus on ability over disability. I was excited about a performing group that fosters confidence building and collaboration.
Because I loved theater so much, I was also excited about providing the opportunity to perform to people of all abilities. I knew a few of the students with special needs in my grade from my classes, but I had never really had the opportunity to get to know them. I thought that this program would help to break the barriers between students that were already in place.
What types of productions have you worked on?
I directed two shows in middle school, themed The Four Seasons of New York City and Sports. I then went to high school, where I was an actor in four shows, themed Road Trip, The Circus, Under the Sea and Fairy Tales. And then, last year, when I left for college, I started North Carolina's first Unified Theater program in Chapel Hill and served as the advisor. The show was titled [IM]Mortal and was about three immortal siblings in Medieval times searching for mortality.
How have others involved in your school reacted to the program?
The communities I've been involved in have been so proud of a program like Unified Theater. I think the program really adequately represents how the communities are starting to modify their views toward people with disabilities. There's a lot more integration overall in my hometown in Connecticut and also in Chapel Hill. And I hope to see that change continue to grow in those two communities.
What has been the most fulfilling moment for you?
The most fulfilling moment was, without a doubt, the opening song of Chapel Hill's performance last spring. Seeing a smile on every performer's face, the interactions between the students and the pride that they all showed in their own performance made me so proud that I had brought the program there. The experience as a whole was humbling.
Why would you encourage other students to become involved in Unified Theater?
Unified Theater is not just a program for kids with disabilities. Every student gets something out of it, whether it's a boost in self-confidence, a handful of new friends, development of a new skill, or a whole host of possible benefits. Some of my closest friends have come from my Unified Theater experiences. I am so proud to be a part of Unified Theater, and as more and more students get involved, I think it will change the way a lot of teens think about themselves and their peers.
What advice do you have for other high school students looking to become involved in Unified Theater?
Keep an open mind about who could do it! Unified Theater is the most diverse club at my high school. One year, my skit group had the yearbook editor, the captain of the football team, a few lacrosse players and a few of my friends from choir and theater. Unified Theater gives many students the opportunity to perform in a non-competitive environment, so it opens the possibility up to a lot of students who have an interest in performance but maybe not the time to commit to their school's major show.