“I’ve been calling Centre Stage the heartbeat of South Side High School and the heartbeat of the Rockville Centre School District for 10 years,” said Dr. Noreen Leahy, the district’s assistant superintendent for pupil personnel services and special education.
That’s how long the inclusive theater program, in which general and special- education students stage a performance each year, has thrived. This year’s show is set for May 17 and 18, and will reflect on the last decade of the program through skits and dance numbers.
“It goes to our philosophy of inclusion to make sure that there’s a space for everyone and that everyone has their opportunity to shine and spread their creativity out in the world,” Ryan Delaney, a teacher for the visually impaired in the district, said of Centre Stage.
Delaney was part of Centre Stage from the beginning, formerly serving as a one-to-one aide for Bryan Nesdill, 26, a South Side High School graduate with special needs. In 2008, Nesdill, then a 10th-grader, wrote a play called “The Voyage Home” for a class assignment, based on a book he read about the Titanic. He and Delaney brought the story to Gina Lukaszew-ski, one of Nesdill’s special-education teachers, who thought that performing it would be a good end-of-the-year activity.
Nesdill began recruiting classmates for roles. The six or so students in the class found makeshift costumes in South Side High’s basement, Lukaszewski recalled, using overturned tables for props. She reserved the auditorium and invited some classes to watch, “never realizing where that one little fun assignment” would go.
Leahy, the assistant principal of South Side High School at the time, recalled that there were only about 15 people in the audience for what would later become Centre Stage’s first performance. Seeing its success, Nesdill’s mother, Mary Ann, and his father, Jim, dreamed up a theater program that could include all students, and with the help of administrators, parents and students, the group was born.
A chance to shine
Centre Stage gives an opportunity for special-education students to participate in theater, according to Mary Ann, and, more importantly, allows them to work toward a common goal with their general education peers.
“The general [education] kids wanted to be in it just as much as the special-needs kids,” Mary Ann said, “and the magic that was made on that stage was incredible.”
Nesdill first took the stage in fourth-grade in a theater program called “Time to Shine” at the John A. Anderson Recreation Center. “He was loving the stage,” Mary Ann said. “We could see as parents that he would step on that stage, and he turned into a different person. He didn’t need a microphone. He was singing, he was dancing.”
He also acted in shows at Our Lady of Peace in Lynbrook, where Ellen White was the theater director. White has since become the cornerstone of Centre Stage, helping writing the scripts each year and coordinating the student-run efforts.
But when Nesdill entered high school, joining the drama club was not an option. As Centre Stage entered its second year, that all changed. Nesdill, who also acted in the productions, said his skit ideas come from movies and television shows. “I’m so glad Centre Stage got big,” he said.
“It’s really mind-blowing actually,” Mary Ann said of seeing the program evolve and the interactions between the kids. “…They’re all the same on the stage.”
Growing the program
Catherine Mackey, a 2010 graduate of South Side High School, joined Centre Stage for her junior and senior years. She had known Nesdill since they attended Francis F. Wilson Elementary School together, and in Centre Stage’s second year, Mackey and Nesdill began writing skits, which eventually became “High School Musical: South Side Style.”
The next year, she and Nesdill wrote “Camp Rockville.” Mackey, whose parents Jane and Bill also helped with the productions, said the best part of the program is making lifelong friends with people whom many students might not otherwise interact with regularly. The students work on the dance routines and skits from late October through May, as the once-a-week after-school rehearsals become more frequent, reaching three times per week just before the show.
“It just completely broadened horizons about what it might be like to work with people and be friends with people who have different challenges than your own,” Mackey said, “and I think that has genuinely shaped the lives of the students that were involved.”
Mackey, who attended Yale University, is graduating from Georgetown Medical School this month on her path to becoming an orthopedic surgeon. She said part of her desire to become a doctor was realizing how much she loved working with people. “I think Centre Stage really kind of shot that dream into the air,” she said. “… It’s definitely shaped my life.”
After Mackey graduated, Rick Cisario, 22, wrote a few shows with Nesdill, also working with White, who he said has injected a sense of warmth into the productions over the years. “You don’t see an hour and a half of kindness all the time,” he said, “so it’s really nice.”
Cisario said Centre Stage represents what people can do when they accept one another, and teaches all involved that there is more that brings general and special education students together than separates them.
He helped write “Wizard of South Side” and “Neverland: A South Side Story.” By the fifth year of Centre Stage, Mary Ann said it had become a standing-room-only event. For the last several years, the performance has been offered on two nights in order to meet demand, and has drawn about 2,000 people. On the stage, what started with a half-dozen students now has about 100 participants.
“To this point in my life, it’s the most inspiring experience I’ve ever had,” Cisario said. “And truth be told, I could live for 100 years and that may still be the case.”
Centre Stage extending its reach
The program continues to thrive, participants and colleagues said, in part because of White, who is also the co-founder of Backyard Players & Friends, a local arts-based community program that caters to teens and young adults of all abilities.
“The show is great, but it’s more what it takes to get to the show,” White said. “…Inclusion’s a big word, but it’s not really that hard to do.”
In this year’s show, Leahy and South Side High School Principal John Murphy give a tour to Mackey and Nesdill, who have returned to a refurbished building. Each place they go in the school is an homage to previous Centre Stage shows. Nesdill, who graduated from South Side about five years ago, still serves as a consultant for Centre Stage.
The theater program is one that can exist anywhere that there is support, and organizers are thrilled to see its reach expanding. With Mary Ann’s help, Valley Stream South High School put on South Side’s “Neverland” production a few weeks ago, White said, and the hope is to have this type of program in high schools across Long Island.
In addition, more Rockville Centre students are participating. Lukaszewski was not too involved with Centre Stage since leaving the high school in 2013, but rekindled her participation last year when the special education students she now teaches at William S. Covert Elementary School joined the show for a dance number. Middle-schoolers are also involved in the play.
“For me, it’s [come] full circle,” Lukaszewski said, adding that students can now take part in Centre Stage from kindergarten through high school. “You almost can’t put into words what happens. …It’s really magical.”
Nesdill’s favorite parts of Centre Stage may just be the simplest aspects of it.
“Being in plays,” he said, pausing in thought. “And everyone gets a chance.”