Sometimes you can't tell whether actors enjoy the roles they play on stage. The Jesters leave no doubt.
When all 50 take the stage for a big dance number during their spring show, “And Then,” faces light up like spotlights as they move and gyrate to the music.
You can experience the joy during performances at 6 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday at University of Saint Francis' North Campus Auditorium.
The shows celebrate the Jesters program's 35th year of changing lives, Director Allison Ballard said.
Started in 1978, the program provides an opportunity for people with developmental disabilities to explore and enjoy creative expression and positive social time.
Currently, 50 people participate in the program, ranging in age from their teens to at least their 50s, Ballard said.
Because so many Jesters members now are adults, younger children with disabilities often are hesitant to join the program, Ballard said. So next year, she will offer a similar program tentatively scheduled for ages 6-13.
The youth program will take place at the same time as the original Jesters program — 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturdays from September through early March, Ballard said. She hopes to combine the two groups for the annual spring stage production.
Funding support from the AWS Foundation has helped her hire a small team of artists to help her with Jesters rehearsals. That grant also supports a weekly outreach program where Ballard works with Easter Seals Arc clients to develop a performance, which they then present at various locations around the community. The actors get paid for performing, which provides them with a little income, she said.
Right now, though, she's focused on the final preparations for “And Then,” a stage story of what happens next.
Rather than a traditional play with a plot that runs from beginning to end, the Jesters will use image-based theater, which creates poignant moments linked by a storyline, Ballard said.
“And Then” takes place in a garden and loosely explores the theme of change by focusing on the relationship between gardeners and a caterpillar, she said.
This year's show features puppets, more than 20 songs, a very large caterpillar portrayed by three people under a scarf and a 6-foot-long praying mantis, Ballard said.
“Some of the Jesters really love having a puppet on their hand,” Ballard said. “They came alive,” including a few members who rarely spoke in the past.
Preparation for the play also took Jesters beyond the garden gate.
They learned stories by Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi and will tell five of them during “And Then,” Ballard said.
Cast members also studied the art of Claude Monet. In addition to creating their own small painting on canvas, Jesters also worked together to paint two, large, Monet-inspired canvases used in the production — a garden scene and a pond scene, Ballard said.
The Jesters' rehearsals also provided service and learning opportunities for new students at Saint Francis.
Jesters each spent time with Saint Francis photography students to learn how to take photos, Ballard said.
A total of 175 Saint Francis students also volunteered four hours of service time with the Jesters as part of the university's iConnect class for new students, said Colleen Huddleson, an assistant professor and assistant to the dean at the university's School of Creative Arts.
Ballard isn't sure how the shows will go this weekend. But she knows the Jesters have worked hard, and they have grown from trying a variety of art techniques and performance roles.
“At the end of the day, I am just really proud of them,” she said. “No matter what happens (at the performances), we've had this really rich time together.”