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NEW YORK CITY – A Tallahassee student had a chance to shine at Arts for Autism, an annual Broadway benefit held at the Gershwin Theater on June 20. The event made a triumphant return with over $35,000 raised to expand access to the arts for those impacted by autism.
The one-night-only concert featured a constellation of the biggest names on Broadway performing with the stars of tomorrow – student groups from across the nation.
Adam Jacobs (Aladdin, The Lion King, Les Misérables) hosted the event, which featured legendary Oscar, Grammy, Tony Award-winning composer Stephen Schwartz on the keys for musical numbers from The Baker’s Wife and Wicked. Talia Suskauer, the current Elphaba in Wicked, sang “For Good,” with Atypical star Naomi Rubin – an artist on the autism spectrum.
Elaine Hall, founder of The Miracle Project – a performing arts and social skills program profiled in the HBO Two-Time Emmy winning film Autism: The Musical – served as the Keynote Speaker, and encouraged the students in the audience to stand up against bullying.
Duet to remember
Zachary Noah Piser, star of Dear Evan Hansen, closed the concert with 15-year-old Emily Weller of Young Actors Theatre of Tallahassee in a duet “If The World Only Knew,” written by students from P94M Spectrum School, with vocal support from the student groups and Arts for Autism Company.
Over 200 kids performed in the finale with Broadway star Piser, said Sarah Doolin Roy, Executive Director of Young Actors Theatre. "It was an incredible experience for the Young Actors students, who got to rehearse at The Pearl Studios, see Wicked (the day before they performed on the same stage), tour 9/11 memorial — 20 years after the tragic event, and shine on Broadway in the year it returns to live during a pandemic.
Notably, YAT's Emily Weller, who is on the autism spectrum, was selected to perform the finale with a Broadway star.
Three questions with Emily Weller
Q. Why should the performing arts industry celebrate autism?
A. In the performing arts industry, people from all walks of life join together to create something beautiful. We are all different and that is part of what makes this industry so very special. Everyone adds so much to whatever project they work on.
However, autism can actually be a performer’s superpower. For example, autistic people can pour their hearts and souls into a project like no one else can. We experience total devotion when doing something we really love. We also dive into the specifics of character work well. This makes us strong and connected performers.
Q. What life skills do you learn at YAT?
A. At YAT I learn many skills that help me in my day to day life. First, YAT teaches me to be confident. When consistently performing in front of people, the stage starts to feel like a home. Because of this, giving speeches and expressing myself in front of large groups of people is natural to me and I do not feel nervous.
Second, I have learned to collaborate with my peers at YAT, which helps me make friends and learn how to connect with others, whether that be at school, at the theater, or just in general. YAT is a place where I can be myself, and I have many so many relationships that I know will last for years to come.
Q. How do you feel to be selected to sing with a Broadway artist in NYC?
A. It was incredible to spread awareness for autism and sing with Zachary Noah Piser from Dear Evan Hansen on the beautiful Gershwin stage. My dream is to be able to perform for my whole life. Performing on a Broadway stage at my age is truly something I will never be able to forget. And the fact that I got to represent others like me while doing it makes my heart so full.
Raising money for artists
To mark Juneteenth, Paradise Square’s Gabrielle McClinton sang “Breathe Easy.”
Broadway artists who participated in Arts for Autism include Kevin Smith Kirkwood (Kinky Boots), Gay Marshall (Jacques Brel), Kelvin Moon Loh (Beetlejuice), Brynn Williams (Spongebob), Natalie Charle Ellis (Beetlejuice), and Marty Thomas (Grammy Award winner, Wicked).
Under the stewardship of an advisory board of artists and activists, funds garnered at the concert will be distributed in $1,000 to $5,000 grants designed to expand access to the arts for people impacted by autism. Grants are available on a rolling basis and the deadline to apply is Oct. 1, 2022. For more information, visit artsforautism.net.
Arts for Autism is a production of Educational Travel Adventures and Believe NYC – two organizations that educate and enrich the lives of young people through performance and travel opportunities. It is produced by Jacque Carnahan and Michael Holzer, directed by Natalie Malotke with musical direction by Paul Staroba.
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This article originally appeared on Tallahassee Democrat: Young Actors student sings on Broadway with Arts for Autism benefit