LONDON — Allison O’Connor and her 19-year-old son, Cameron, are in their living room in London. The two wear matching Seussical T-shirts and have the iconic red-and-white Cat in the Hat hats perched on their heads. O’Connor’s iPhone rests on a music stand. They begin recording.
They’re creating what the two call a social media “commercial” for Dreams Come True Music Studio, an all-ages, all-abilities music-theatre program that arose out of O’Connor’s frustration with finding a fit for Cameron, who has fetal alcohol syndrome. The commercials act as invitations for O’Connor’s group of 28 musicians, ranging in age from nine to 43 years old and including a variety of special needs, to join in the Facebook Live classes and the Zoom rehearsals for Seussical the Musical. The group was deep into rehearsals for Seussical, which they expected to perform as their spring show, when COVID-19 dashed their plans, confining them all to their homes.
Barely missing a beat, O’Connor, who admits she’s not much of a techie, moved rehearsals online. Routine is crucial for a group like this, she explains. And, for many in the group, including Cameron, Dreams Come True had become their social life.
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“That was my fear,” says O’Connor. “That they were going to get sad. I have to do my part to keep us together.”
She sent out emails to her musicians and their families outlining the broad strokes of her plan. Then she got to work organizing. Over the weeks of late March and early April, O’Connor gauged what was working and what needed tweaking. She solicited a friend’s daughter, who knew sign language, to join her team, since some of the participants are non-verbal. Her choreographer created videotapes so that the group could practise at home. Lyrics are sent via email.
O’Connor scheduled Facebook Live classes, which are open to anyone, three times a week. Zoom rehearsals are private and held on Saturdays, after a Facebook Live session.
“The shows flow the same as our live rehearsals because this group really needs the structure,” says O’Connor. She spends a lot of time organizing and prepping, which is nothing new for her — she worked as a music teacher in the Thames Valley District School Board for three decades. Of course, there were hiccups. At first, some of her musicians found it confusing that, while they could see and hear O’Connor on Facebook Live, she couldn’t see or hear them. She responded by creating a Facebook Messenger group so that they could communicate with one other live. She begins and ends each Live session by checking in, then checking out. The group always sings “O Canada” and their “This Is Me” anthem from The Greatest Showman, and special dates or occasions are noted.
The Zoom sessions act like formal rehearsals, with each participant taking a turn performing their role.
“It’s worked so far,” says O’Connor, only somewhat surprised, adding, “I don’t give up.”
O’Connor and her musicians are used to adapting. Among the Dreams Come True musicians is a boy who sings via his electronic device. Some use wheelchairs, so O’Connor works that into the show. Some have mental-health issues.
“You have to teach each person differently. What works for Cameron might have to be changed for someone else. I’m always researching how to reach these guys,” she says. “That’s the great thing about this. Even though you’ll have a dress rehearsal, the show might be completely different.”
That’s not to say it’s not professional, she says. She sets high expectations for her musicians, their support people, and volunteers. “We don’t want it to be, ‘Oh, here’s this special-needs group,’” she says. “We’re all about proving what we can do, where everyone can be successful.”
O’Connor created Dreams Come True in 2018, taking cues from the Special Olympics after seeing Cameron thrive as a result of his involvement. “The more I talked to families involved with Special Olympics about what else they did with their kids, there was never the music side of it, by a qualified person who could do it,” she says. O’Connor began with a summer camp; it was so successful, she introduced a fall program. She hasn’t stopped since.
Josie Elliott saw the Dreams Come True group perform at the school board’s MusicCon in February 2019. “There was not a dry eye in the house after they performed ‘This Is Me,’” she says. A teacher herself, Elliott reached out to O’Connor to ask whether the program might work for her son Nolen, a 14-year-old on the autism spectrum. O’Connor urged them to give it a try.
Nolen, who was assigned the role of Wickersham Brother #2 in Seussical, relies on his iPad to communicate. “He was so excited. He typed ‘Best day ever,’” Elliott says, adding that being involved with Dreams Come True has given Nolen a sense of purpose: “More importantly, it gives him pure joy.”
Nineteen-year-old Alex Fraser says she feels “accepted and happy” with her friends at Dreams Come True. Fraser, who has KBG syndrome, is “a bit of a showgirl,” her mother, Simone, says. “She’s not shy about being on stage.”
Andrea Gillian, whose 14-year-old son is also part of Dreams Come True, calls the group a source of support. “Everyone has a voice that’s important,” she says. “It’s truly inclusive.”
That’s music to O’Connor’s ears; she knows first-hand how isolated those with disabilities and their families can feel: “Music brings people together. We’re just like a big family.”
Right now, O’Connor is eager to find new ways and new places for her group to perform Seussical. “Each week, it’s ‘What else can we do?’ ‘How can I make this work?’ ‘Where can we perform?’” she says. “Who knows? I have to be positive. And keep plugging along.”
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