Cynthia Ford dreams of the day when the idea of blending special needs kids and typical kids in a performing troupe won’t be such a revolutionary concept.
“We’re all just different degrees of normal,” said the founder of the Bluffton Youth Theatre. “On stage, these kids are all acting. They get to be whomever they want to be, no labels.”
Ford is a big thinker with an endless array of ideas. But right now, she is laser-focused on keeping one dream idea alive.
“I want to build a big theater for these kids to perform, I want to find 15 angels to give us $1 million apiece and make it a reality. But for now, we just need to keep the troupe going,” Ford said.
The 45-year theatre veteran moved to Bluffton from Rochester, N.Y., to care for her ailing father. She first worked at Main Street Youth Theatre on Hilton Head Island, but set out to give Bluffton its own kids troupe with a twist.
She started BYT in 2015, with the plan to cast 50 kids per show. She set out to make sure that 10 to 20 of the cast and production team were special needs kids, with anything from ADHD to Tourette’s Syndrome and every diagnosis in between.
The idea was an immediate hit with all families in the area looking for a creative outlet for their youngsters. But it was especially so for special needs parents, a population that struggled to find resources and a network of support in the Lowcountry for years.
“It is just an amazing gift,” said Bluffton parent Heather McMahon, the mother of 10-year-old twins. Her son, Declan, is battling ADHD, dyslexia and diabetes. Her daughter, Michayla, has Tourette’s. “To see them embrace this, to light up and be able to perform, it’s just magic what they do.”
Ford has built a loyal team of supporters, a board of directors with a full spectrum of talented backers. She has a sister with Down Syndrome and has been a special education teacher for decades, so her mission is personal.
“They are forever kids. Being a special needs caregiver is a lifetime commitment. They often never mentally mature past childhood skills,” Ford said. “So we set out to give them an environment to let those skills be maximized through performing.”
The group has put on 10 shows since 2016, with the goal of putting on three or four shows per year. BYT donates $1 from each ticket to a local special needs organization. The shows are performed with two casts, with one group doing the performing for the show and the other serving as the production team. The groups alternate for each performance.
“So they learn a little bit of everything. We are a training ground on so many fronts, a feeder system for the other local theatre groups. But the kids are amazing. I would challenge anyone to find a more professional product than what we give our audiences.” Ford said.
Ford’s group is itself a nonprofit and has done its share of fundraising and ticket sales over the past five years – enough to fund the purchase of 30 stage microphones and a lighting and sound system. Ford rents a warehouse to hold their accumulated collection of donated and homemade costumes, fabrics, set pieces and equipment.
What she doesn’t have is a home for the kids to perform. The group has performed in a variety of spaces from Sun City to a one-off murder mystery theater show at Sigler’s restaurant in 2018 to Hilton Head, where they performed their most recent show, “Aladdin, Jr.” at the Hilton Head Prep’s Main Street Theatre July 29-Aug. 1. COVID delayed that show and has caused a pause in scheduling any others. The pandemic has also caused a steady decline in funding.
“With no ticket sales and donations slowing because everyone is just scraping to get by, it’s caused some hiccups, but we’re as motivated as ever to keep moving forward.”
The productions cost anywhere from $10,000 to $15,000 each to stage, with renting venues being a large portion of the bill. That’s why finding their own space is a crucial component to long-term survival.
“This area is growing, more and more families are coming into the area. That’s also more folks who want to be entertained,” Ford said. “We feel like we’re providing the perfect outlet. We just need to find a steadier flow of sponsors and donor angels.”
Ford is working with husband and wife Darren and Sara Broman, who will take over the promotion and fundraising lead moving forward. Ford is focusing on the production and creative side.
“They started coming to our shows and loved what they saw and the benefit it has for the community,” Ford said. “Their daughter was old enough to be part of ‘Aladdin Jr.’ and loved it. And they were able to start teaching her about people with special needs. So they see the win-win in what we’re doing.”
She has written a musical, “The Prop Room,” about a high school being torn down and all the costumes and props the drama club finds cleaning out their prop room that reminds them of all the songs they’ve song through the years. She plans to begin casting for the show over the next few weeks.
The Bromans are working to line up restaurants to perform the show, with the hope of having multiple restaurants signed on for a rotating dinner theater performance.
McMahon is looking to do whatever she can to promote BYT and the mission led by Ford.
“It’s incredible to see them embrace this, to see Declan go from scared of going to constantly asking when the next show is so he perform,” McMahon said. “They were practicing for six hours a day Monday through Friday for five weeks. To see them be so committed, it was a dream. And as special needs parents can attest to, having the adult peace and quiet time during practice was a bonus blessing. Cynthia doesn’t turn anyone away. Everyone has a role, has a place on the team. We are not used to seeing this kind of inclusiveness, but she makes us believe that this can be the norm someday.”
Ford said the McMahon family is just one story of the impact of BYT.
“Typical, atypical, everyone comes alive in this space. They’re equals, they have to lean on each other and trust each other, and that kind of growth, it’s just beyond words to see that every time we get these kids together,” Ford said. “We want to spread this message, this joy, as far and wide as we can. I’m not great at asking for help, but we need the community to help give us a chance to keep spreading the message.”
To find out more about BYT, visit blufftonyouththeatre.org.
Tim Wood is a veteran journalist based in Bluffton. Contact him at email@example.com.