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Performers' dreams realized

Dream Theatre opens, serves adults with special needs
By: Sena Christian, The Press Tribune
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Dennis Wingate hushes the crowd. He has a very important announcement to make. “We’re going to get this party started,” he says. And what a party the evening ends up being, as about 80 people gather to celebrate the grand opening of Dream Theatre Center for the Performing Arts in Roseville, which is housed in a 5,000-square-foot green building. The center officially opened Aug. 20. Husband and wife team Troy and Michelle Wheeler formed the organization — with the financial support of Troy’s dad Wingate — to provide adults with disabilities a meaningful dramatic arts program and the chance to participate in live productions. David Seybold, 22, joined for an obvious reason. “To perform in the theater,” he says. During the celebration, Seybold dressed in bright yellow and pink striped pants, and wore face paint to perform the role of a living statue. He says he has muscular dystrophy and a host of other problems. Participating in Dream Theatre gives him a chance to act and sing. “It’s awesome,” he says. The for-profit Dream Theatre, Inc., opened in June and students attend class six hours a day, five days a week, during which time they learn how to act, sing and dance. Soon, they’ll learn about stage and costume design, and lighting and sound. The program currently has 20 clients, and between 10 and 15 show up on a typical day. The program needs 30 a day to financially sustain itself, Troy Wheeler said. Clients, all adults 18 and over, are brought to the program through Alta-Regional, a nonprofit private corporation that contracts with the California Department of Developmental Services to coordinate services for people with disabilities. Some of Dream Theatre’s students have been in similar drama programs for 20 years or more. For the Wheelers, the program is a labor of love a year in the making. “Our own kids are grown,” Troy Wheeler says. “They’re like our own bunch of kids.” Troy is a musician and photographer, and Michelle has a background in dance and more than nine years experience teaching performing arts to adults with special needs. The couple says involvement in the arts helps people with disabilities develop their creativity, self-discipline, self-esteem, confidence, hand-eye coordination, communication skills and teamwork skills. “I just assume people can do the work,” Michelle Wheeler says. “And they start doing things they’d never been exposed to.” She remembers one situation at her previous job in which the dad of a student wouldn’t let his son touch any stereo equipment at home. But the student handled the theater’s soundboard at shows. She informed the dad about his son’s capabilities. “When you focus on their abilities and not disabilities, they really rise to the challenge,” Troy Wheeler says. One of those students is Joe Marques. Marques, 52, is sight impaired and has cerebral palsy. He has one artificial eye and the other eye functions at 7 percent acuity. He had cataracts when he was born due to lack of oxygen. “The doctors said, ‘Don’t expect him to do anything, put him in a home,’” Marques says during a recent lunch break. “My mom wouldn’t do that.” He has been involved with drama programs for at least five years. He’s mainly a singer and actor, and recently played Shrek, he says, breaking into the character’s accent. Dancing is difficult for him because of his limited vision and balance problems. “Singing is something I’d love to do forever if I could,” he says. With all that performing experience under his belt, he’s no longer nervous when he walks onstage — he’s only concerned with making sure he can see the end of the stage. “(The program) gives me more confidence to say what I have to say and talk to people,” he says. “You learn to think on your feet. And that’s not a gift, that’s a talent you have to earn.” During the grand opening, the students get their first chance to woo the audience with a Beatles tribute they’ve spent the past month perfecting. Eleven students sing a rendition of “Hello Goodbye,” as they wave to the crowd and shake hands with one another. Then Marques sings “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” as his fellow performers sway in the background. One back-up singer raises her voice a little too loud and Troy Wheeler gives her the motion to lower it down a bit, and she smiles bashfully. There on stage with Marques stands Gina Espinosa, his fiancé. Next up, the aptly named Star Herring grabs the microphone, looking nervous. But this stage fright doesn’t last long and she starts singing the Beatles’ song, “Blackbird.” “‘Take these broken wings and learn to fly,’” Herring sings, a huge smile on her face. “‘All your life, you were only waiting for this moment to arise.” Sena Christian can be reached at senac@goldcountrymedia.com. ---------- For more information, visit www.dream-theatre.org.