Isaiah Oliver may not have his sights set on improv comedy in the future, but the experience of learning something so new and bold has him thinking about what else is possible.
“It’s really fun. I’m thinking about also trying something else new, like cooking,” said the junior at Union High School.
Oliver and his 18 classmates in Tina Talbott’s special education class for students with disabilities have been getting out of their routines in the best way possible, thanks to their work alongside Union’s 25 elite repertory theater students.
The two classes will stage a one-time performance of a variety show they’ve dubbed the “Show of Shows” to raise funds for the Union Special Olympics Booster Club.
The variety show, which will also feature magic, sketch comedy and song and dance, is set for 7 p.m. Thursday in the Studio Theater at Union High School Freshman Academy, 7616 S. Garnett Road. Admission, which is open to the public and sold at the door, is $10 for adults and $5 for children age 12 and under.
“They’re very excited and their parents are very excited because they’ve never done anything like this before,” said Talbott. “I’d like to see it continue and maybe open more opportunities like this in the future.”
Theater teacher Troy Powell said the inspiration for the show came from a beloved member of his own family and the experience of bringing his 25 repertory theater students to volunteer at last year’s Special Olympics in Stillwater.
“Getting into this class is audition-only, meaning they have to beat out like 150 other kids to get in — so these are the best of the best. It was an amazing experience seeing the immediate connections they made with the other kids,” said Powell. “All summer long, this was stewing in me because my wife’s cousin has Down syndrome. He’s such a joy in my life and I started thinking how great it would have been for him to have a connection like this when he was in high school.”
Oliver and his teammates on the improv comedy team couldn’t help but cut up at their own jokes as they rehearsed with a random assortment of props, including a traffic cone, a Canada goose decoy, a plastic sword and a pumpkin.
At rehearsals, Powell said his favorite part of how things have turned out is that it’s nearly impossible to distinguish those with disabilities and those without, as he watched one group belt out “Location” by Khalid and “Rolling in the Deep” by Adele and the improv group transitioned into an audience-participation act called “Body bag.”
“I tell my students: We strive as artists to open up our chests and be vulnerable. Look at these kids — there’s no hidden agendas. It’s all honest,” Powell said.
Students in both classes pitched ideas for what acts the “Show of Shows” should include and then Powell integrated them into a final plan.
But each team of students decided the specific songs, magic tricks or scenarios they should perform.
One team produced a mash-up of classical and pop music, including accompaniment by junior Sierra Dysinger on violin and senior Rebecca Ritter on cello. For their pop song choice, they went with the favorite of one of their special needs teammates, “High Hopes” by Panic At the Disco.
“We’re both in orchestra and repertory theater. We haven’t combined the two ever before, so when he said, ‘High Hopes,’ we said ‘Great!’ ” said Ritter.
Theater students reassured their teammates when nerves or shyness struck. “It’s my first time,” said Geovany Bamaca Hernandez, a sophomore in the improv comedy group. “I don’t know what to do.”
But Hernandez and Oliver and their classmate, Carlos Marinez, confidently plowed through rehearsals of those “body bag” and prop acts, as well as an improv scenario that has the performers pairing up as a driver and hitchhiker with all of the details filled in spontaneously.
Isaac Jones, a junior, confessed there was a learning curve for him and his theater classmates in the improv group, as well — figuring out how to teach the new participants improv because it’s such an abstract concept.
“I told them, ‘You just jump off the cliff and do everything to try to make it work,’ ” Jones said, “but it’s hard to explain.”
Junior Dorothy Palmer piped in, “We would play games and show them.”