Sarah Knight joined the Jesters about six years ago, not too long after her father died. She was in counseling, and her therapist suggested she join the performing group. She did, and it changed her life.
"It was amazing because when I first joined it I loved being with people like me with disabilities," she said, adding she loves it so much she doesn't want to give it up. She loves to draw, sing and dance, and Jesters gives her the opportunity to do all three.
Sponsored by the University of Saint Francis, the Jesters is a group of performers who have moderate to severe developmental or intellectual disabilities. Each spring the Jesters perform an original show.
This year's production, "Horse Tales," will be performed at 6 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday at the university's North Campus auditorium.
Knight, who is 21, plays the part of a puppet master in this year's production. She also designed part of the show's logo. Knight explained she has Asperger Syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism. She graduated from South Side High School in 2011. She says she's proud that she and the other Jesters are breaking the stereotypes of what people believe they're like. She added she likes being "around people who understand you and don't judge you."
Allison Ballard, who is directing her sixth Jesters show, understands what Knight is feeling. "People with developmental disabilities in general frequently interact with a world that keeps them at arm's length," she said. "So when they come into this program that's not what they experience."
Seventy people, including six children, are in this year's show, which Ballard wrote. Some are non-verbal; others are high-functioning. Ballard has student apprentices and volunteers helping her and the performers. Still, "there is a fair amount of chaos in this work," she said. "I call it organized chaos."
Participants aren't always able to process directions easily or quickly, she said. So the crew does things such as help them get on and off the stage at the right time.
They don't get a pass just because of their disability. "I expect them to work," Ballard said of the performers. "We're not patronizing them. There's an expectation for a quality performance."
Performers may be struck by stage fright — "just like neurotypical people," Ballard said. "They may respond to that differently."
During a past show a performer burst out crying onstage. Someone backstage came and got her. At another show, an audience member with a developmental disability came onstage.
"You have things like this that happen," Ballard said. "That doesn't make it a bad show. You just take it in stride and keep going."
Ballard writes the Jesters shows and incorporates theater, puppetry, dance, instrumentals and voice. "It really is a range of many different disciplines," she said. She will customize parts based on performers' abilities and strengths.
"Everyone has a part," she said. She doesn't want anyone just to stand on stage.
"You really have to kind of open up your paradigm," she said. One nonspeaking performer "came alive" when they put a puppet on his hand.
This year's show is set in a stable where horses and dogs are gathering for a hunt. The animals' stories are based on pieces of literature such as "Call of the Wild" and "Black Beauty."
The Jesters program actually runs from September to March each year, providing 20 weeks of movement/dance, music, theater and visual arts activities. Each spring the Jesters program culminates in an original production performed by the participants. From January through March, Jesters who want to be in the show must attend the program four hours every Saturday.
"When it's all done we're all exhausted, but in a really good way," Ballard said.