It makes me look like I have three eyes,” joked Sabreena Bunger, 17, referring to the microphone taped to her forehead.

It was a light moment at Blaine High School as Bunger got ready to play Dory in this week’s production of “Finding Nemo: Barely Hanging On? Just Keep Swimming.” The play, a variation of the Disney movie, is the ninth annual show staged by special needs students in the school’s auditorium.

The shows began after students asked instructors why they couldn’t act in a school production. The instructors didn’t have a good answer.

“It’s gotten bigger every year,” said special education teacher Beau Dickey. “It’s gotten so we have to top the year before.”

All students in the program perform, and over the years, technology has made it possible for them to take part in more significant ways.

“The technology changes so much, and it’s getting so much more advanced,” said Dickey. “It’s given them more and more opportunities to be heard.”

In the beginning, “the script was heavily written around the students who were able to use their personal voices to speak,” said special education instructor Carrie Holly.

Technology also makes things easier for students who might run into that common showbiz malady: stage fright. It was a problem for freshman Brock Shepard, Holly said, but “once we programmed and he started using his communication device, his confidence soared.”

That’s your cue

Dickey stands at the front of the stage and uses color-coded flip charts with numbers to cue students when their lines come up. Then students hit the corresponding number on their iPad or assistive technology device, which delivers the prerecorded or automated lines.

Shelley Montbriand, the educational speech and language clinician at the school, said using newer technology in place of some of the older synthetic-sounding automated devices helps with comprehension for students on stage and in the audience, too.

“You can add more inflection and intonation,” she said.

Many of the students own their own personal devices now, and Montbriand said that because technology is so much a part of the lives of the wider student population, students don’t feel like outsiders using them. “It just gives the kids a voice,” she said, and for some, “it feels like a lifeline to them.”

One year, there was a technological glitch.

All the students had been fitted with Bluetooth devices. However, when the audience came in, many had Bluetooth enabled on their phones, and the interference was overwhelming.

“We got a little too fancy,” said Dickey.

Specific themes

Each year, the script focuses on a specific theme. Last year, it was bullying. This year’s show, written by the special ed instructors, deals with anxiety.

The students prepared costumes, invitations, and three-dimensional promotional posters in the shape of characters. They’ve drawn and painted huge, brightly colored backdrops of sea anemone and coral reefs.

“Kids are involved in almost everything we do,” said Jessie Lockwood, special education paraprofessional.

The auditorium will almost fill up for the shows, said Dickey. High school students drop in, and special needs students from places as far as River Falls, Wis., come to watch.

A local television station tapes the performance, and after the play is over, instructors put together a DVD with the video, a music video, and photos.

‘This is her amazing’

Bunger, the student cast as Dory, plays a character who has short-term memory loss, which isn’t a problem for her: She is gifted at memorizing, and she helps out fellow actors if they forget a line.

At the same time, her mother, Emerald Rose Patterson, says Sabreena’s role has improved her sense of responsibility and her confidence.

“Getting involved in this play is one of the best things that’s ever happened to her,” said Patterson. “We all need something amazing in life to happen. For her, this is her amazing.”


Liz Rolfsmeier is a Twin Cities freelance writer.