‘It’s Like Watching Magic’ - The Missourian: Feature Stories

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‘It’s Like Watching Magic’

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Posted: Wednesday, September 26, 2012 12:00 pm

Kaci Conley, Washington, is just 13 years old, but she’s already spent time as a gin-drinking pickpocket, a munchkin and a jitterbug. And right now, she’s having fun being a sassy teenage orphan.

Kaci, who plays the lead orphan, Duffy, in the Variety Children’s Theatre production of “Annie” coming to the Touhill Performing Arts Center at the University of Misouri-St. Louis Oct. 26-28, said she loves her part, even if friends joke that her character’s personality hits a little close to home.

“Some have said it’s type-casting, and that’s fine,” Kaci remarked, with a smirk.

Kaci, who was born with a muscular disease known as myotubular myopathy, which means she has a lack of muscle and isn’t able to walk, takes all of the good-natured ribbing in stride. Despite her young age, she’s something of a stage veteran.

“Annie” will be Kaci’s fourth play with the Variety Children’s Theatre, and over the summer she made her debut on The Muny stage as part of the children’s choir in “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”

She’s also been on stage with the Variety Children’s Choir, even performing a tap dance routine last spring using the metal footplate of her power wheelchair.

To those who know Kaci, it’s probably no surprise to learn of her acting, singing and dancing credits. She’s a natural performer.

Her parents, Laura and Jim Conley, have always been open-minded about giving their daughter every opportunity they can, despite her being in a wheelchair. Even by the time she was 4, Kaci was overcoming so much of what doctors had predicted she would never do that the Conleys learned to let Kaci determine her own potential. So back in 2009 when a representative from the Variety Children’s Theatre program called to ask if Kaci, then 9, would be interested in auditioning for the program’s first production — “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” — they let Kaci decide for herself.

“I said, ‘Well, I always wanted to be a pop star,’ ” Kaci recalled.

Still, she was nervous at the audition. It was the first time she had ever sang in front of audience outside of church, Presbyterian Church of Washington, where she sometimes sang with her older sister.

At the time, the Conleys weren’t all that familiar with Variety the Children’s Charity of St. Louis. They had registered with the nonprofit to receive some adaptive equipment for Kaci, things like a wheelchair and a van lift.

“We had maybe been in a parade for them,” Laura Conley said.

That was enough for organizers to see Kaci’s personality and know she could be a natural on stage.

Although she remains in her wheelchair during her performances, Kaci moves her upper body and her chair, sometimes even her feet, as part of her dance choreography.

“I feel like it’s easy,” she said, particularly of the tap dance routine she did back in spring. “I learned it really quickly.”

Kaci had never done any tap dancing before, but when she was given the opportunity to audition for it, she told her mom they needed to go out and buy her a pair of tap shoes.

All-Inclusive Productions

The St. Louis chapter of Variety the Children’s Charity was founded in 1932. Since then it has helped thousands of children with disabilities, providing them with vital medical equipmen and educational, therapeutic and recreational programs.

Variety also distributes grants to more than 80 qualified agencies throughout the St. Louis area to fund programs and/or services that directly impact the lives of children with physical and mental disabilities.

The charity added the children’s choir around 2000 after Executive Producer/CEO Jan Albus saw a similar program in Toronto at the Variety World Conference.

“They were all in wheelchairs, and they were just amazing,” she said.

A few years later the chapter realized there was a core group of children in the Variety choir who also could act and dance, so they launched the Variety Children’s Theatre in 2009 with the mission of producing classic Broadway musicals with a cast that is 50 percent children with disabilities — anything from cerebral palsy and spina bifida to autism and Down’s syndrome — and 50 percent working actors.

“I saw these children progressing and learning and becoming very adaptable on stage,” said Albus. “They began performing at our Dinner With the Stars, at Blues games, Cardinals games, Christmas concerts at The Sheldon . . . and I realized they could handle more.”

The shows have always been professional quality with eight to 10 equity actors and a full live orchestra with musicians from The Muny and St. Louis Symphony.

The stage auditions are open to everyone, said Albus. For “Annie,” over 150 children and 50 adults auditioned.

Albus said she loves that the program brings children of all abilities together, because it’s a learning opportunity for everyone involved.

“The idea is that the children will all learn from each other in an inclusive setting,” she said, “the children with exceptional gifts in theater (working actors) and the children with disabilities.

“There is a great respect on both sides, and they become friends — friends all year long. They keep up with each other. It’s a great inclusive program.”

This year the Variety Children’s Theatre program received national recognition when it was awarded a $10,000 National Endowment for the Arts’ Art Works grant. The funds are directly supporting the production of “Annie,” Albus noted.

This is the first Variety Children’s Theatre production that puts “Variety Kids” like Kaci in principal roles. There are 20 on stage and 12 more working behind the scenes with production, set design, lighting, sound and more.

“I’ve been told we’re very unique,” said Albus. “There’s no other program like this in the country.”

Life of a Child Thespian

After “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” in 2009, Kaci landed a role as one of Fagin’s boys in “Oliver!” in 2010 and both a muchkin and a jitterbug in “The Wizard of Oz” in 2011.

Then this past summer, Kaci was invited be part of the children’s chorus of The Muny production of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” by director Lara Teeter, who also directs shows for the Variety Children’s Theatre program.

Kaci was one of four Variety kids Teeter asked to perform, said Albus.

It was an incredible honor and very exciting for Kaci, said Laura Conley, but the schedule was demanding.

Because of the way The Muny books its shows, there isn’t time for a stage rehearsal between the closing night of one show and the opening night of the next so they have a midnight rehearsal that can last until 6 a.m. Then there were the nightly 8:15 p.m. shows, which didn’t put Kaci and her mom home until well after midnight the whole week.

“She was on stage six different times, and anytime the children’s chorus was singing and they weren’t on stage, they were singing live in a room off stage,” Laura noted.

Kaci didn’t mind any of the hardships involved in being in “Joseph.” She had dreamed of being on The Muny stage for some time.

“I was so blessed to be able to do it,” she said, sounding far more mature than her 13 years.

With the Variety Children’s Theatre shows, the rehearsal schedule can be equally as demanding, said Laura, noting for three weeks prior, rehearsals are weeknights from 6 to 11 p.m. and then every Sunday from 1 to 5 p.m.

The Conleys are able to make it work, in part, because they homeschool Kaci, which they do to protect her health.

Of course, the experience of being in all of these stage shows is educational, Laura Conley pointed out. Take “Annie” for instance — the children are learning about The Depression, the 1930s and what it meant to be an orphan during that time.

The most rewarding lesson, however, is the less obvious one about inclusion, said Laura.

“These shows have nothing to do with children with disabilities,” she remarked. “It just so happens that some of the kids on stage use adaptive equipment.

“It’s really about empowering children . . . it’s like watching magic.”

In addition to performing in Variety’s choir and theater programs, Kaci also has spoken in front of groups on behalf of the charity, explaining what Variety means to her.

“It means everything to me,” Kaci told The Missourian. “Variety helps kids like me be able to perform on stage and do things we love.”

The Conleys joke that what Variety really did was give Kaci a bigger audience.She has always been a performer, they say.

“‘I have a motto,” said Kaci. “Happiness is a choice, and I choose to be happy.”

For more information about Variety and for ticket information for “Annie,” visit www.varietystl.org.

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