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Theatre company offers program for special needs actors

Daily News - 7/16/2017

July 16--Debbie's Angels Productions is currently the only theatre company in Jacksonville that offers a theatre arts program, like Acting with Autism and Special Needs.

Founded by "born and raised" resident of Onslow County, Meme Simmons, she says their theater company motto is theatre is for everyone.

With national Broadway tour credits under Meme's name like "You don't know me" with Tyler Perry's stage production company, "Ain't Misbehavin,'" and "Best Little Whore House in Texas" based off the movie staring Dolly Parton and Burt Renolds, Simmon's specifically hired Chanelle Doctor (who has a degree in Drama Therapy) to spearhead the acting programs. She we will be working with children and adults with autism, ADD, ADHD, Down Syndrome, and physical disabilities.

"Theater is so much more than costumes, lights, and make up. It's a creative outlet and with a real healing aspect to it--special needs or not." Simmons said. Named after the nickname Simmon's mom, Debbie, would call her children, Debbie's Angel Productions has performed upward of 50 shows successfully since opening in January 2012. Located at 742 Court Street in downtown Jacksonville, there's not stopping their tenacity.

From dance lessons to singing instruction, Debbie's Angel Productions has a program for every skill set.

"Offering these programs have always been something that's been on our list of things that we want to offer as the company grows -- I know what it does for those with special needs and those with autism. It helps them with social skills. Learning how to interact with others, making eye contact, speaking in groups, speaking in front of groups. When they get in theater they know everyone's doing it, they are not singled out and the focus isn't necessarily just on them," Simmons continued.

And these benefits, as Simmons pointed out, trickles over to home life and the school environment as well.

Beth Skinner knows exactly what Simmons is speaking about. Her son, Tristan, has been at Debbie's Angel Productions for just this summer camp and already their family has seen a remarkable "transformation".

Diagnosed with autism, Tristan didn't speak to others and generally kept to himself. While he showed emotion, touching others like taking a hand was often impossible. Tristan, as Skinner described, is very literal. But, give him a task and he will perform it to the last detail and acting, seemed like it would make sense for him to try.

"We tried Karate. We did soccer. But, there was just something about the dynamic of it that he didn't latch on, too. And, as a mom with a special-skilled child, I get it -- it's hard to let go and try new things or enroll your child into something different. You don't want others to talk about them. Or make fun of them. It's challenging. But, on stage and with Meme, I can see a difference."

Happily Skinner described the first time Tristan ordered his own food while out to dinner.

"We were out as a family and all of a suddenly he tells me he'd like to get his own food. When the waitress came to the table, he did it. He just did it! We didn't outwardly make a huge deal about it, so not to startle him. But, I kicked my husband from under the table and I was just jumping inside," Skinner recalled. Soon after accomplishing that tiny little task many take for granted, Tristan went on to explain the entire plot of Disney Pixar's, Finding Dori.

It didn't happen over night like some fast moving miracle found in the movies, but rather occurred in small poignant doses over the span of weeks. In a way, one could argue Tristan forgot about that which made him different and was instead shown how we are all the same. Beautiful still, when the audience watches not just his performance, but that of all those who participate, it seems the limitations disabilities are attached to fade as well.

"On stage, you don't know see challenges -- you just see characters. That's the beauty of it," added Simmons.

From kids to adults, all can register through Debbie's Angel Productions website (www.debbiesangelproductions.com) or come into the studio on Sunday afternoons and to talk and meet with the staff. Right now, for the summer time, Sunday acting classes are provided, but during the Fall and the spring Debbie's Angel Production 8 week acting classes commence.

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(c)2017 The Daily News (Jacksonville, N.C.)

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