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Inspired by her brother, Woodbridge woman creates inclusive theater

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“There is a brotherhood of man/A noble tie that binds/All human hearts and minds/Your lifelong membership is free/Keep a-giving each brother all you can/Oh, aren't you proud to be in that fraternity/The great big brotherhood of man?”

The lyrics to the big number at the end of the Broadway hit “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” perfectly captures the spirit of Heart House Inclusive Productions. The fledgling theater company, which will perform the musical this summer, gives actors with and without disabilities a chance to perform alongside one another. Founder Eva Thorpe had one actor in mind when she started Heart House — her younger brother, Michael.

Auditions

Eva, 24, and Michael, 22, grew up in Woodbridge. Michael, who has Down syndrome, always loved to watch musicals. “He’s watched the same ones his entire life, over and over and over,” said Eva. “He can perform all of them for anybody who cares to watch.”

As they grew up, Eva was saddened to think that her extroverted brother wouldn’t get to have a normal high school experience. “I went to Woodbridge High School and I had a great time there, but I remember the special education,” said Eva. “I remember going home the first day of school and telling my mom, ‘You can’t send Michael here. You just can’t do it.’ ”

So her parents decided to enroll Michael in the Options program at Saint John Paul the Great Catholic High School in Potomac Shores. One day, Eva picked him up from school. “I sat in the lobby and he came down the hallway with just an entourage of guys and everyone’s going, ‘Hey Michael, what’s up?’ I almost started crying because I couldn’t believe that he was finally getting what I wanted him to get, that it was possible,” said Eva. 

Though she wasn’t raised Catholic, the experience prompted Eva to explore the faith. “Michael had been having such a good time at John Paul that I started to look further into that,” she said. “I was so grateful that was the community that had given him those opportunities.” She went through the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults her junior year at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg and was baptized and confirmed by Father Christopher T. Vaccaro, chaplain. 

Michael had “the time of his life those four years” at John Paul the Great, said Eva, but after he graduated, a lot of the opportunities he had, like the ability to be involved in theater, were gone. She remembers one Christmas after he graduated, she took him to see a filmed version of the Broadway musical “Newsies.” He had a great time at the movies, but later that night she found him crying. “I asked him why and the gist of it was that he was never going to be on Broadway. He couldn’t do that,” she said. “And I said, alright I’ll make something for you.”

Rehearsal

Creating Heart House was more difficult than she anticipated, but friends, family and total strangers were willing to help along the way. She first formed a non-profit and then a board for the organization, which consisted of “pretty much myself, my two friends and my mom,” said Eva. 

Her godfather, John Maher, has a son with disabilities and is involved in theater, so she asked him to attend a meeting. “He suggested doing this show and he said, ‘Well, I guess if you do this show, I’d be willing to direct it,’ ” said Eva. “I said, ‘You just made a mistake because now you’re our director.’ ”

Maher’s former company, ECS Federal, donated start-up money, as did Porto Charities, a Catholic organization that funds activities benefiting the disability community. Father Brian G. Bashista, pastor of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in Lake Ridge, let the company rehearse in the parish hall. John Paul the Great agreed to host the performances. Eva, who works as an applied behavior analysis therapist, is making the set. A cast member, Debra Bucklen, volunteered to help with the costuming.

The Heart House actors learned about the production in different ways. Eva’s mother, Heidi, told members of her choir about it, including Bucklen. Greg Hoppe and his mom, Karen, learned about the play through Porto Charities. Kieran Weldon, a parishioner of St. Elizabeth, was told by his theater director at Woodbridge High School. Leading man Luke Morris was a classmate of Michael’s who heard about the play from the Thorpes. 

After two and half years of hard work, the cast was assembled. “We have 23 people, which is 22 more than I thought we would have,” said Eva. Their dream was becoming a reality, but Michael did have one complaint. “On the first night of rehearsal, I looked over and Michael was sulking. I said, ‘Why are you sulking? And he said, ‘This isn’t West Side Story.’ ”

Showtime

When Eva envisioned a theater company for her brother, she didn’t want something specifically for people with disabilities. She wanted something for everyone, including people with disabilities. It’s a philosophy the whole company has embraced. “Not only do you have to accept each person who has an obvious disability, but it also teaches you to accept (everyone else),” said Morris. “It creates a more welcoming and charitable way of acting.”

Morris, a senior at The Catholic University of America in Washington, was excited to act again after participating in theater at John Paul the Great. “Michael and I had a director, Sister Mary Brigid (Burnham), who was the coolest lady. She said the message of acting and morality are the same — just act well,” he said. “I think that’s the point of the company: to act well to each person and show them the dignity that they deserve, independent and in spite of anything that may affect them.”

Bucklen and two of her daughters, Eden and Lydia Shoop, have done theaters for years, and were excited to support the production. Her daughter who has Down Syndrome, Moriah, isn’t able to be involved. But Bucklen said they’ll have a hard time stopping Moriah from singing from the audience. “She loves music — the whole family loves music,” she said. 

Cast member Greg was in theater while at St. Paul VI Catholic High School in Fairfax and was asked back several times after he graduated to guest star in the spring musicals. Karen said Greg, who has Down syndrome, has loved the stage since his first recital in preschool. He also loves musicals. “Greg knows the difference between the Robert Morse score and the Daniel Ratcliffe score (of ‘How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying’),” she said. “It’s show biz, honey, and that’s where he lives.”

To her, Heart House Inclusive Productions is a great example of the culture of life in action. “Everyone has a right to be born, but it’s so much more than that,” said Karen. “You also need to give people an opportunity to pursue whatever gifts God gave them.” 

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If you go

Heart House Inclusive Productions’ performances of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” will be held July 19-20 at Saint John Paul the Great Catholic High School at 17700 Dominican Dr., Potomac Shores. To learn more, go to www.hearthouseip.org.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019

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