Krista Wilkinson’s heart sank.
The debut of the For Good Performance Troupe, a local drama company Wilkinson started for children and adults with Down syndrome, had ended, and she was trying to hustle performers off stage so they could return for their bows.
She turned and saw the audience rising from their seats. In her world as a Penn State professor of communication sciences and disorders, that meant one thing: a room quickly emptying.
The novice director, flustered by the moment but intent on giving the cast a curtain call, sprang into action. Please don’t leave, she announced.
“At which point I realized it was a standing ovation,” she recalled, laughing.
Since that glorious start in the spring of 2012, the For Good troupe has been teaching its performers and volunteer leaders the ins and outs of musical theater, while building confidences, friendships and memories along the way.
With three review-style shows of Broadway and pop tunes to its name, the troupe is rehearsing this fall for its next performance in November. As before, performers with Down syndrome will be paired with “peers,” young actors who volunteer to help the cast learn numbers and then, as shadows, sing and dance on stage with them.
Wilkinson sees the arrangement as a “partnership.”
“It reinforces the idea that we’re working on something together,” she said. “That’s what has made us a cohesive group.”
The troupe is a joint effort between the Centre County Down Syndrome Society and the State College Area High School’s Delta Program. Casts rehearse weekly on Saturdays and perform in the Delta school’s auditorium in the old Fairmount School building.
From its debut of four songs done by 10 performers and five peers, the troupe has grown. This year’s spring show featured 17 performers and 11 peers singing 11 songs.
Kaleb Brownson, 11, has Down syndrome and has been with For Good from the start. His younger brother, Carter, now serves as a peer.
Their mother praised Wilkinson’s “vision about an activity that could really help our kids,” and the peers who make their partners “feel comfortable, that they’re the stars.”
“Our kids, they don’t get to shine. They don’t get to show their capabilities,” Sara Brownson said. “This is an instance where they get to stand in front and show what they can do.”
Not all the performers are children. Dave Dance is in his 20s, living his dream. While riding a bus as a boy, he once acted out parts from movies such as “Speed” and “Back to the Future” to the delight of his fellow passengers.
Never did his mother think he would have the chance to mine his talent on stage.
“I have searched for outlets for this particular interest of his over the years and could not be more thrilled with the opportunity provided to him by the For Good troupe,” Suzanne Weinstein wrote.
“It is not only an opportunity for him to perform, but it is also an opportunity to bond socially with his peers in a way that can only happen when the group is working together toward a common goal.”
For years in her field, Wilkinson heard a common refrain from parents of children with Down syndrome. Local and school plays offered their aspiring actors only small parts, if any. They wished for something more.
The sentiment followed her after she moved to State College in 2008. But this time, she found herself in a better position to come up with a solution.
Her children, Matt and Abby, became involved in local musical theatre, plugging her into the arts community. As the SCDSS secretary, she befriended families of children with Down syndrome, gaining their support.
In the spring of 2012, For Good started.
The troupe took its name from the “For Good” number in the musical “Wicked,” the story of the friendship between Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West, and Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, in the land of Oz.
“But because I knew you/I have been changed for good,” the lyrics declare, framing the mutual benefit that’s at the heart of the troupe.
“Really, it’s doing as much for the kids without disabilities,” Krista Wilkinson said.
Penn State senior Jeanna Stiadle agrees. An accomplished singer majoring in communication sciences and disorders with a voice studies minor, she joined the troupe as a service project and now provides musical direction.
The For Good performers have taught her a few things about self-confidence and presence, she said.
“So many of these kids, there’s no stage fright, it’s amazing,” Stiadle said. “I’m amazed by them every day, how confident they are. Everybody learns from them.”
One original peer has been so inspired, she now wants to study special education in college. Matt Wilkinson, a Delta student, started the Delta For Good Committee, a service club that makes the troupe’s sets, props and costumes.
Being a peer, he said, has helped him better understand Down syndrome and has given him new friends to share birthday parties, bowling and video games.
“They’re very nice people, and I wouldn’t have had that experience otherwise,” he said.
He also enjoys the artistic collaboration, especially during the democratic rehearsals where everyone contributes ideas.
“Giving them a chance to be in the spotlight is an awesome feeling,” Wilkinson said.
Fellow charter peer, Delta student and For Good Committee member Sean Toso loves it all: the mentoring, the friendship, the communal fun, the families’ reactions.
He’ll never forget the response after the first show — done on a makeshift stage in a Penn State lecture hall that the Omega Phi Alpha sorority helped reserve — concluded with “For Good,” the troupe’s standard closer.
“The first time we performed it, you could look out and it was just tears everywhere,” said Toso, a veteran musical theater performer.
“It was one of the coolest things, and it was one of the biggest emotional responses to any performances I’ve been in. It was stunning.”
Afterward, he basked in another memorable moment.
“I had one mother and grandmother come up to me and they were speechless,” he said. “They just sat there thanking me for allowing their boy to perform.
“It was one of the best feelings ever.”