ASC Grant Helps InReach Teach Acceptance Through Puppetry

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Why This Matters: An ASC Cultural Vision Grant is allowing InReach to expand its puppetry troupe for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
InReach puppetry troupe members with director John Wirz (center).
InReach puppetry troupe members with director John Wirz (center).
By Bernie Petit
Communications Manager

Jillian Bockenek said she’s noticed a change in herself since joining a touring puppet troupe organized by InReach, which provides a range of services for individuals in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg region with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families.

“I have more confidence,” said Bockenek, who performs six characters in the troupe’s show “Barnyard News,” a satire of local TV news that is relatable to the performers and their audience.

The 15-minute puppet show, geared towards younger children, teaches acceptance of others and appreciation for what makes each of us unique. It is performed completely by the special needs clients that InReach serves.

“All of us puppeteers have differences and we’re teaching kids about differences,” Bockenek said.

An ASC Cultural Vision Grant is helping more members of the InReach community participate in the performing arts. ASC funding is allowing the organization to double the size of the troupe to 10 performers and provide them with small stipends.

“The ASC grant really allows us to give them this opportunity because we wouldn’t be able to do it otherwise,” said InReach Development Associate Kelly Perez.

“This is providing a vehicle for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities to share their voice and to show people that folks with disabilities are just like you and just like me. They want to be a part of something, they want to create and they want to feel valued.”

The puppetry troupe, directed by InReach Creative Arts Coordinator John Wirz, teaches the performers theater basics like stage direction and striking a set. Holding and maneuvering the rod and stick puppets helps some of the performers improve their motor skills.

But perhaps the most important skill the performers learn is teamwork.

“All of us have to work together,” said puppeteer Brandon Shannon, “and we all try to help each other when we mess up.”

Both Shannon and Bockenek perform six characters in the show. And both said what they love most about being part of the troupe is making kids laugh.

“They always clap at the end,” Bockenek said. “Whenever we bring the puppets around they get excited to see the puppets.”

During performances, screens shield the performers from the audience. Afterwards, the audience can meet the puppeteers and the characters.

“It’s beautiful to watch,” Perez said. “The kids don’t care that the performers look different or act different, they just care about being near these puppets.”

An InReach puppetry troupe performer meets with a young audience member after a performance.

If you are able to catch a “Barnyard News” performance – which you can at 11:30 a.m. Tuesday, Nov. 20 at Discovery Place Nature (nature center admission is $8) – Shannon has a piece of advice.

“Get ready to laugh, because you will laugh,” he said. “It’s really funny.”

It also has a valuable meaning that’s important to remember no matter your age.

“Treat others the way you want to be treated, that’s the whole show, basically,” he said. “If somebody’s different, don’t make fun of them. Try to see if you can be their friend.”