Center for Theater Arts’ Special Actors program has been creating chances to shine for 42 years

Photo above courtesy of KDKA.

A local program has been giving people with disabilities the opportunity to shine on stage for 42 years. This year, some of the students are performing the musical “Grease,” where dreams of being Pink Ladies or T-birds come true as the musical theater students become the characters in the classroom and on stage.

“I love it here. It’s like a second home,” says Peter Brodcinski, one of the students in the program. “It’s fun to be here, and my part, the main lead, being Danny Zuko — it’s awesome.”

Brodcinski throws himself into the role. So does his friend, Jimmy DiPiero, who’s been in the program since he was 8. DiPiero is now 42.

They are among 68 students in the Special Actors program at Center for Theater Arts in Mount Lebanon. This program for people with special needs has run continuously since 1981 when the Center opened. The whole time it has been at no cost to families.

Jimmy’s mom, Sue DiPiero, says it gives him confidence. “Sometimes a little bit too much confidence,” she laughs. “We walked out of the house with his jacket on and… the other neighbors were looking, but he had the whole ensemble on…. He really loves it here and loves coming here.”

Billy Hartung, Center for Theater Arts’ Executive Director, loves seeing their enthusiasm.

“I mean, one jacket and… they’ve been a T-bird their whole life,” Hartung says.

Hartung grew up taking classes at Center for Theater Arts and even volunteered in the Special Actors program as a teenager. He sees the purity in their performance.

“There’s an honesty,” he says. “There’s a clarity that is pretty beautiful, and it has nothing to do with what we’re teaching.”

In addition to the magic happening in the studio at Center for Theater Arts, the parent waiting room has become a special place of its own.

“This Center does two things right now on Friday nights. We have a short respite for these moms to talk and connect about the struggles and successes and challenges and the victories. And in that room, the kids are having their own challenges and their own victories, but it’s a shared success together.”

Sue DiPiero says this about the group of parents in the waiting room with her: “We are best friends – all of us. We really are…. We all love and care about each other and each other’s children.”

Parent Karen Gothe of Whitehall describes it as “a natural support. We didn’t have to sign up at some organization. It happened naturally.”

Gothe’s son, Alex, jumps into his Elvis persona with a big black wig and gold suit, shining even brighter when the spotlight’s on him. Center for Theater Arts’ Special Actors program lets these students be someone else or just themselves — accepted for what makes them unique.

“It’s awesomeness — life, dreams,” Brodcinski says. “Nothing will stop me now.”

Center for Theater Arts offers classes for all children — this is just one of many programs. Learn more here.

Want to see more student theater? Check out Kidsburgh’s guide to spring high school musicals happening throughout the Pittsburgh region.  And click here to see which students were nominated for Prime Stage Drama Awards this year.