Keeping the 'Dream' alive

Roseville couple focuses on growing performing-arts program for adults with disabilities
By: Sena Christian, The Press Tribune
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The Dream Theatre performers crack Santa Claus jokes and stumble over lyrics as they rehearse their inaugural holiday show. The December “Hollywood Christmas Jam” will feature a mix of classic holiday songs and rock songs, performed at the company’s 5,000-square-foot center in Roseville. Shawn Coatney, one of 12 performers at the center Friday afternoon, plays keyboard and sings a solo rendition of “Please Come Home for Christmas,” so touching that his colleague Liz Baggett tears up in appreciation. Coatney has Asperger syndrome — an autism spectrum disorder — and is blind. Before joining the Dream Theatre Center for Performing Arts a month ago, he mainly sat at home and watched television, says Troy Wheeler, who runs the local business with his wife, Michelle. “Shawn’s a great talent,” he says. The for-profit Dream Theatre, Inc., provides adults with disabilities a meaningful dramatic arts program and the chance to participate in live productions. Through their involvement, they improve their self-discipline, teamwork skills, coordination, self-esteem, focus, creativity and more. But as these clients gear up for their holiday show, the Wheelers focus on making their dream financially solvent — that is, when the hands-on couple isn’t busy teaching classes, devising play lists and working the sound system during rehearsals for what they call their “mom and pop establishment.” “We’re not making lots of money,” Michelle Wheeler says. “We just want to be happy and comfortable. We’re doing this because we love to do this.” Five months after Dream Theatre’s soft opening in June, the company continues to be stuck in the red each month. The couple spends about $17,000 a month to run the program, which includes rent, equipment, worker’s compensation, health insurance and payroll. While the Wheelers say they aren’t worried about the possibility of closing their doors, California state budget cuts and stalled client enrollment hinder their ability to expand. “We’re kind of in a stalemate,” Troy Wheeler says. “We’ve got tons of ideas and things we want to do, but it’s getting over this hump so we can breathe.” Clients attend class at Dream Theatre six hours a day, five days a week, during which time they learn how to act, sing and dance. Eventually, they’ll learn about stage and costume design, lighting and sound. Clients, all adults 18 and over, are typically brought to the program through the Alta California Regional Center, a nonprofit private corporation that contracts with the California Department of Developmental Services to coordinate services for people with disabilities. The center serves about 17,000 people throughout Alpine, Colusa, El Dorado, Nevada, Placer, Sacramento, Sierra, Sutter, Yolo and Yuba counties. The majority of these clients, at 70.9 percent, fall within the ages of 3 to 40. Most live in Sacramento, with about 12 percent in Placer County. The Lanterman Developmental Disabilities Act gives people with disabilities in California the right to services that help them achieve a more independent and normal life. One such service is called “adult day care.” Dream Theatre is one of 15 licensed adult day care programs in Placer County and one of seven in Roseville. Darla Lyon, an Alta Regional service coordinator, has refered clients to Dream Theatre. “The real value is (the program) allows our clients the opportunities to express themselves and to learn other skills for their regular, everyday lives,” Lyon says. “It’s a niche. Not too many programs offer theater and this is all about theater. It’s a great option.” Another adult day care, Studio 700 Center for the Arts, located in Roseville, also offers a drama component as part of a comprehensive art curriculum that includes painting, ceramics, weaving, jewelry, dance and more. What makes Dream Theatre unique, though, is its sole focus on performing arts. Shortly after hosting a grand opening in late August, Dream Theatre got several new clients but then enrollment plateaued. With a total of 21 clients, the theater averages 15 people a day, but needs between 22 and 25 to break even. The program receives a set amount of money per day, per client from the state of California. The 2009-10 state budget cut this rate 3 percent. This year, legislators reduced this rate by another 1.25 percent. As a for-profit company, Dream Theatre cannot provide a tax deduction receipt for donations. They don’t charge for performances because they can’t afford to pay the fees to acquire the rights for the material they use. But they will put out a donation bucket for the holiday show. The Wheelers want to spread the word about their program but, logistically, meetings and presentations don’t fit into their busy schedules of working with clients. They’ve considered starting a subsidiary nonprofit production company, but that will take more time and energy. During Friday’s rehearsal, the clients practice a rendition of Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime.” The theater’s new part-time hire, Kris Benach, watches with a smile on her face. She ran a similar performing-arts program in Philadelphia for 12 years before recently moving to Roseville. Earlier in the rehearsal, she recorded one of the group’s performances on her phone. “It gave me goose bumps,” she says. “They’ve got the harmony and everything. It’s phenomenal.” Sena Christian can be reached at ---------- For more information about Dream Theatre, visit