There’s a group of young people working to deliver a message to middle schoolers throughout Loudoun County: that hope can persist despite challenges.
Their medium is a 40-minute musical performance that puts the spotlight on characters facing challenges, such as physical and mental disabilities, and portrays them in positions of strength. The original musical, called “Abira and the Mountain,” is put on by nonprofit art and music therapy center A Place to Be and will be shown at four middle schools in Loudoun County and to thousands more students at the Hylton Performing Arts Center in Prince William County by the end of the month.
Through its Same Sky Project, A Place to Be has delivered a message of hope and resilience through staged productions to Loudoun County’s public schools for the past seven years. Teens and young adults have been behind each of the productions, which use the fun and power of theater to broach serious subjects, such as stereotypes, suicide, and mental illness. And “Abira and the Mountain” is particularly special for the team at A Place to Be, because it was written by two of their longtime clients, Amy Stone and Ryan Perry.
The couple was leaving the movie theater after watching “Power Rangers” when Stone mentioned that it’d be nice to one day see a movie that featured people like them as main characters. Stone, 23, was born with cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair and Perry, also 23, has autism.
Perry said, “Well, why wait for Disney to write that?”
So, the two got to work. Perry wrote an 80-page screenplay with regular input from Stone. The end result is the story of Abira, played by Stone, is a princess in a wheelchair who is strong, innovative and beautiful, but she often feels secluded and lonely inside the castle. One day she decides to travel through her kingdom to see what she’s been missing. There, she meets others with disabilities, mental and life challenges and she discovers that she can use her own life experiences to help them live better lives while also increasing her own self-worth.
Just for fun, the two presented the screenplay to Tom Sweitzer, executive director at A Place to Be. “He went nuts for it,” Perry said.
Sweitzer, with the help of A Place to Be’s music director Brandon Hassan and drama therapist Angelle Cook Bascom, transformed the screenplay into a musical. The touring cast of 17 includes many young people who have their own stories of overcoming tough circumstances.
Stone said the story ended up mirroring much of her life, from the challenges of feeling unseen and unheard as a young girl in a wheelchair to the moment she found her voice, in part due to her time at A Place to Be. And her favorite part of her tale? She met Perry. The two have been dating for about two years, she said.
“One year, nine months and 24 days to be exact,” Perry interjected during a recent interview with a smile.
Stone was a middle schooler and a new client at A Place to Be when she came up with the concept for the Same Sky Project, with the idea of bringing plays to the schools that illustrate that everyone is different but all live under the same sky. The initiative has brought five productions to the local schools since 2011, also including “Behind the Label,” “A Will to Survive,” “One Second of Grace” and “A Mother’s Will.” In all, more than 60,000 students, primarily in Loudoun County, have seen the traveling productions.
“The school system has embraced us and been really supportive,” said Cook Bascom, the director of “Abira and the Mountain.”
She said she and her team want the productions to provide young viewers with a mirror and a window. “The mirror is for any kid in the audience who has autism, cerebral palsy, depression, diabetes, down syndrome—any of the varied diagnoses that we have—and have them reflect back to those kids in the audience to see, wow, look at what someone like me is capable of doing,” Cook Bascom said. “And we want to offer a window for those who haven’t interacted with anyone with outward challenges to see them in that positive light.”
Perry and Stone said seeing their little idea on stage in front of thousands of teens has been inspiring. In February, they are bringing the production into the elementary schools for the first time.
“I was kind of joking, and here we are on stage,” Stone said just before a recent performance at Smarts Mill Middle School. “It’s really been a huge chance to share a little of our story, and we hope that encourages others who face challenges to share their stories.”