MILLBURN, NJ - Last night’s Paper Mill Rising Star Awards proved a great success for Morristown High School’s Theatre Program, which won the esteemed “Theatre for All: Access and Inclusion” Award for their Spring Musical, Legally Blonde. This is the program’s second year in a row winning the award, which  recognizes the inclusion of students and adults with disabilities in all aspects of the theatre program as well as accessibility for its audiences. The program was also nominated for the “Educational Impact Award,” and earned Honorable Mentions for an “Outstanding Performance by a Chorus,” as well as an “Outstanding Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role” for Victoria Fanning’s performance as Paulette Bonafonté.

“Last year we started as a directing team and we all looked at how we could make the theatre the most inclusive place that we could,” said member of theatre’s producer, Ralph Losanno, during his heartwarming acceptance speech last night. “We wanted to make sure that our theatre program was truly a home for everyone.”

After winning the award for their 2016 spring musical Once Upon A Mattress, the program took their inclusion a step further by creating a performance specifically tailored to members of the community with special needs.

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This “Sensory Friendly Show,” a performance open free of charge to the entire community, included adjusted volume and lighting settings, increased availability of exits, and access to classrooms with calming activities as needed. Dr. Jessica Neu, Supervisor of Special Education PreK-12, along with parent committee volunteers Karen McAllister, Ann Bono, and Julie Gulisano, and MHS Senior Leo Ruiz helped to make the event possible. Additional support was provided by the Morris Education Foundation Student Board, Parent Advocacy Council for Education, Governor's Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse, and the Morris Plains Municipal Alliance.

“The sensory friendly performance was an amazing experience for the community,” said Ruiz. “We were able to give families a special night out at the theater, which rarely happens because of social anxiety that take place. It was a joy to see whole families getting to go out and see a show that everyone can enjoy.”

Additionally, the program donated 10% of its profits from the Thursday night performance of Legally Blonde to support brain cancer and breast cancer research.

“The theatre is truly a special place and a place that everyone should find their happiness and peace in,” Losanno added.

And the program, which has become a large part of the school community, embraces any and all students, regardless of special needs or disabilities. The department prides itself on using theatre as a powerful tool to bring students together and promote positive messages of acceptance.

The program was gifted with an $1,000 in tandem with the esteemed award. Artistic Director Michael Maguire also urged other directors and administrations in the audience, to” reach out to create their own sensory friendly performances,” as the program hopes to inspire others to become more accessible to all members of their communities.

“I am so proud of the MHS Theatre Program for their sensory friendly production of Legally Blonde,” said Dr. Neu,“to my knowledge there has not been another high school yet in the State to put on such an innovative and well thought out production for the students and families in their schools and surrounding communities. The Rising Star Award is a true testament to the inclusive philosophy embraced by Michael Maguire, the rest of the staff, cast, and parents. Thank you for being ALL IN.”

And the program is truly ALL IN, as it looks to increase its accessibility and inclusion in the coming years. “It was a huge success and we cannot wait to expand even further,” said Losanno.  

The Morristown High School Theatre Department looks ahead to its upcoming seasons with the intent to continue its inclusive and accepting mindset, starting with its fall drama, Almost, Maine, this November