Staging a life-changer: ProjectFree and South Pacific

Gulfport's ProjectFree stages a special South Pacific with developmentally disabled adults.

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South Pacific

Catherine Hickman Theater, 5501 27th Ave. S., Gulfport.

June 9-10: 7 p.m.; June 11: 3 p.m.

$15.

727-350-5706. myprojectfree.orgGet tickets here.

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click to enlarge Time out for a cast photo after rehearsal of the song 'Honey Bun." - Sharon Vanderline
Sharon Vanderline
Time out for a cast photo after rehearsal of the song 'Honey Bun."

In community theater, the key word is “community.” For two months or so, a little family is created. Actors, the director, the techies and the support staff work together in making the show as good as it can be through teamwork, grit and camaraderie. In a theater family, wallflowers blossom, social skills are sharpened and self-esteem is shored up as everyone pitches in together towards a common goal.

For the developmentally disabled, where social skills and self-esteem are constant concerns, the theater experience can be transformative. That’s the manifesto of Gulfport-based non-profit ProjectFree, Inc. The organization’s Rising Starz program creates community theater for adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities.

Rising Starz will present its 2017 production, the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical South Pacific, June 9-11 at the Catherine Hickman Theater.

The 24 performers have been diagnosed with a range of disorders, including Downs and Asperger Syndromes. They range from non-verbal and lower-functioning to high-functioning.

And they all sing and dance.

“The music brings them alive,” says ProjectFree founder and president Sharon Vanderline. “They might not win Dancing With the Stars, but everybody is impacted. We have students in wheelchairs, with cerebral palsy. And I feel it’s very important for the public to see them. And it’s great entertainment, to top it all off.”

click to enlarge Steven Brodnick and Ali Karakas rehearse the "Some Enchanted Evening" scene. Director Broskette has great things to say about her two lead actors. Of Brodnick, she enthuses: "When you see him on stage, you can see how well he connects with his character, his fellow performers and the emotions of his character.  It is a joy to watch him." - Bill DeYoung
Bill DeYoung
Steven Brodnick and Ali Karakas rehearse the "Some Enchanted Evening" scene. Director Broskette has great things to say about her two lead actors. Of Brodnick, she enthuses: "When you see him on stage, you can see how well he connects with his character, his fellow performers and the emotions of his character. It is a joy to watch him."

Vanderline’s daughter, 38-year-old Lauren Rittenhouse, has Downs Syndrome. Vanderline and her sister Kim Costanzo began ProjectFree as a way to help Lauren achieve her dreams. Other adult day training (ADT) programs, she believed, were just treading water. “Fun” was rarely on the schedule.

“I could’ve let my daughter coast,” says Vanderline, who brought ProjectFree here four years ago from Connecticut. “I could’ve just gone to work every day, and let her go to her ‘program,’ and be completely bored out of her mind and unfulfilled. Or I was going to have to step up to the plate and help develop this. All of us quit our day jobs last year to try and make this happen.”

Daily, the ProjectFree center is bustling with activity. “A lot of our adults — like Joe, who’s 70, or Andrew, who’s 47 — would otherwise be doing nothing,” says Vanderline. “They just sat home. Our goal is to let people know that that they can belong.”

ProjectFree is also an art gallery, which sells works by the students (who come in from group homes all over the area) alongside paintings and crafts by established area artisans. There’s a “rock band” experience, too, for those who just want to make music. Professionals volunteer their time and talents to work with the music students.

This season, of course, Rising Starz is the center of attention. And that means South Pacific. All hands are on deck.

“People would say ‘You’re crazy. You’re not going to get anything out of them. They can’t remember … they’re not going to know their target … they’re not gonna talk.’ Even parents! Some of our actors have autism, and a mother said to me ‘There’s no way.’ And as a matter of fact, on his very first day he ran out the door and I had to chase him down the street. But now he’s onstage, he knows his target and he knows his lines,” Vanderline says.

click to enlarge Rick Cook, left, plays Billis, and Sidney Jane Bailey (foreground) is Bloody Mary. - Bill DeYoung
Bill DeYoung
Rick Cook, left, plays Billis, and Sidney Jane Bailey (foreground) is Bloody Mary.

Corinne Broskette is directing South Pacific. A member of Equity, SAG and AFTRA, she has decades of professional theater and television on her resume. In 1992, she founded the venerated Venue Theatre and Actor Studio in St. Petersburg.

Broskette has worked with special needs performers, and so she ignored the ProjectFree naysayers. “If you don’t ask people what their skill level is, and you don’t investigate it, you’ll never get anything out of them,” she says. “I’m the kind of person that likes to challenge people.”

She’s aided by an all-volunteer staff, including 10 students from the performing arts program at Gibbs High School. They serve as costumers, stagehands, onstage singers and helpers — and prompters, in case someone in the cast forgets a line.

Sixteen-year-old Gibbs student Brooklyn Webb is the show’s musical director. She plays piano and leads the band. Rehearsals, she enthuses, have been tremendously satisfying.

“You can tell that they really feel it when they’re singing,” Brooklyn, who’ll be a senior in the fall, explains. “They really mean it and they’ve having a good time. They’re not thinking about what comes next — they’re in the moment. It’s really awesome to see all of them up there together, coordinating something like this. And enjoying it so much.”

Broskette can see the changes every single day. Steven Brodnick, 28, plays Emil in South Pacific (and sings “Some Enchanted Evening” beautifully, by the way).

“Steven studied with me for about six years,” Broskette says. “He worked very hard, very diligently, in order to increase his skills. In the beginning he was shy … but he would always clown around with people. He learned how to create characters, and how to literally pretend he was feeling things that he doesn’t feel in real life.”

Brodnick, when asked what he likes best about theater work, smiles broadly and provides the perfect answer:

“I get the chance to pretend to be somebody else.”

And 24-year-old Ali Karakas, who stars as Nellie, says that creating theater simply makes her happy.

“When I’m stressed out about other things in life, being in a play makes that melt away, and I don’t think about it. I love being onstage with others and having lines — being onstage is fun.”

click to enlarge Nellie (Ali Karakas) and the girls run through "I'm Going to Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair." - Bill DeYoung
Bill DeYoung
Nellie (Ali Karakas) and the girls run through "I'm Going to Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair."

At a recent rehearsal, as the cast ran through “I’m Going to Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair,” “Nothing Like a Dame” and the uproarious, show-stopping “Honey Bun,” the happiness in the air was palpable and contagious.

“When you see the joy that these people have created, when they realize that they’ve done a good job and they’ve created something …” Broskette trails off, overcome.

“When they stand onstage, they’re comfortable,” adds Vanderline. “When they’re onstage, it’s the most important thing in their lives. When they’re onstage, they’re free. “And the sense of self-empowerment that comes from that – from a group of people that nobody expected much from — is powerful.”

click to enlarge ProjectFree's Sharon Vanderline (left) and director Corinne Broskette supervise the rehearsal. - Bill DeYoung
Bill DeYoung
ProjectFree's Sharon Vanderline (left) and director Corinne Broskette supervise the rehearsal.

About The Author

Bill DeYoung

Bill DeYoung was born in St. Pete and spent the first 22 years of his life here. After a long time as an arts and entertainment journalist at newspapers around Florida (plus one in Savannah, Ga.) he returned to his hometown in 2014.You’ll find his liner notes in more than 100 CDs by a wide range of artists including...
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