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New Ken-Arnold special education teacher heads inclusive theater productions

Patrick Varine
| Sunday, May 22, 2016, 11:35 p.m.
Play director Megan Nelson poses for a portrait in the Murrysville Community Library on Saturday, May 14, 2016 in Murrysville.
Patrick Connolly | Tribune-Review
Play director Megan Nelson poses for a portrait in the Murrysville Community Library on Saturday, May 14, 2016 in Murrysville.
Play director Megan Nelson poses for a portrait in the Murrysville Community Library on Saturday, May 14, 2016 in Murrysville.
Patrick Connolly | Tribune-Review
Play director Megan Nelson poses for a portrait in the Murrysville Community Library on Saturday, May 14, 2016 in Murrysville.

In Megan Nelson's experience with other theater groups, auditions typically are very competitive.

“They take the best of the best, and the other kids don't get to participate,” said Nelson, 39, of Export.

As a special education teacher in the New Kensington-Arnold School District, Nelson has a wealth of experience in working with children affected by developmental and emotional disorders and across the autism spectrum. So when she decided to head her own theater productions, she made sure they were 100 percent inclusive.

“I've been working with (these) kids for about nine years now,” Nelson said. “I had one kid in particular who was able to watch and memorize any movie, and I thought, ‘There has to be a way to use this ability.' ”

Nelson is in the midst of rehearsals for a June production of “Alice in Wonderland,” with a cast that includes actors on and off the autism spectrum. The show will be performed at 5 and 7:30 p.m. June 4 in Laird Hall at First Presbyterian Church in Murrysville.

Both of Lisa Hnath's sons, 15-year-old Jacob and 17-year-old Joe, are part of the production. Jacob has acted before, but more recently has been part of the technical crew, helping with audio.

Joe is autistic at a very high-functioning level and has been part of every one of Nelson's productions. He has portrayed Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol,” Schroeder in “You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” Joseph in “Little Road to Bethlehem” and even had a small cameo as Santa Claus in Nelson's adapted production of “Snow White.”

His mother praised Nelson's efforts at inclusion.

“She's amazing,” Hnath said. “The knowledge, patience and heart it takes to manage something like that is not easy.”

She said the shows are a great outlet for both of her boys.

“Joe has just found it awesome to be a part of these productions,” Hnath said. “It's nice for them to have something to do together. Joe tried the sports thing, but it just wasn't his niche. So it's nice to have something they can both participate in and enjoy.”

Lori Livingston of Murrysville has two daughters, ages 11 and 15, neither of whom is autistic. She said she has seen them both grow and mature from participation in Nelson's plays over the past six years.

“With my girls starting at a younger age and being able to interact with kids on the (autism) spectrum, I've seen growth in terms of coming to their defense. One of my daughters has even spoken up about it in school,” Livingston said. “It's more than just the play. Everything they learn being part of it — self-reliance, dedication, being accepting of others — they can apply in other areas of their life.”

Nelson enjoys the curtain calls more than any other part of the productions.

“You look, and the kids are standing up there, taking their bows, and you see a lot of ... kids right alongside kids who no one thought could do this, and it's just a beautiful feeling,” she said. “But that's how it should be: kids being kids.”

Livingston said the shows are a tremendous benefit to all of the children who participate.

“It's a wonderful lesson for my kids, and for me, to learn,” she said.

Nelson is a longtime advocate for East Suburban Citizen Advocacy, a nonprofit organization from Murrysville whose mission is “to create and support relationships between individuals with developmental disabilities and caring members of the community who will advocate and promote opportunities for inclusion.” Its executive director, Kate Cala, said Nelson is the embodiment of that goal.

“Megan embraces all that we are, and that's why we're so supportive of her program,” Cala said. “We're also turning it into a mini-fundraiser with a ‘Mad Hatter Tea' between the two productions and all of the proceeds will help to expand the ‘Welcome to Music' program.”

Nelson credited the large role that music and theater has played in her life.

“I know the positive impact it's had on me. It's beautiful to see the impact this experience has on their lives and how it's shaped and helped them grow.”

She said working alongside kids with disabilities has taught her several important lessons.

“You don't know what they're capable of until they show you,” she said. “They can do so much if you give them the opportunity. And they learn a lot from their peers — sometimes they learn more from their peers than they do from adults, like any other typical kid.”

Hnath said she is grateful to Nelson for taking a chance in putting on the shows.

“It's a huge responsibility, and she's a pretty neat person for doing it.”

Patrick Varine is a Tribune-Review staff writer. He can be reached at 724-850-2862 or pvarine@tribweb.com.

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