in my humble opinion

The Center for Discovery

There’s no place like home

Posted 6/19/24

About three weeks ago, I took note of my friend Cris Spinner’s post on social media. “Today marks another milestone for Anthony, brought to you by Center Magic!” 

Anthony, …

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in my humble opinion

The Center for Discovery

There’s no place like home


About three weeks ago, I took note of my friend Cris Spinner’s post on social media. “Today marks another milestone for Anthony, brought to you by Center Magic!” 

Anthony, who is autistic, is Cris’ son, and lives and learns at The Center for Discovery (TCFD), which is located on 1,500 acres in Sullivan County. 

“I’ve always wanted Anthony to be a part of the Center’s annual musical,” Cris wrote, “but he wasn’t interested.” 

“What’s this?’ I thought. “Musicals at The Center for Discovery?” Intrigued, I picked up the phone. 

Cris told me that The Center had a fantastic theatrical arts program and that they had been rehearsing a “really special” production of “The Wizard of Oz,” adapted for Discovery Dramatic Arts by Conio Loretto, adjunct professor at SUNY New Paltz and senior director of music therapy at TCFD. Wanting to know more, I looked for info about the program online.

“Participants in our dramatic arts program are taught the basics of what it means to be on stage, which in turn provides tools for success in everyday life,” The Center’s website informed me. “In addition to taking classes in the dramatic arts, our actors and actresses are provided with opportunities to perform in productions for their families and friends. Individuals take on roles behind the scenes as well, assisting with everything from costume and set construction to stage management and publicity. Productions ultimately become an achievement shared by many from within The Center’s community, not just those on stage.”

I read that in addition to “Oz,” past productions have included adaptations of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “A Christmas Carol,” “Guys and Dolls” and “Fiddler on the Roof.”

I had never met Cris’ son, nor been to The Center’s Michael Ritchie Big Barn Theatre in Hurleyville, NY, but I asked Cris how Anthony came to be involved with the show and if she could wrangle me an invitation.

“Anthony has sensory issues, particularly when it comes to noise,” Cris shared, “and doesn’t like to be on the stage primarily because of the clapping and cheering that would come from an audience. But [director] Conio Loretto and his team were undaunted. Conio cast him as the narrator, and Ant was able to pre-record his part. They projected his lines on giant screens on either side of the stage, and he was so proud! That is the magic of The Center,” Cris said, “finding ways for people with differing abilities to shine brightly!”

Billed as “a unique theatrical experience,” The Center’s production was unlike anything I have ever watched. As folks filtered in and took their seats, we were given programs that included audience participation instructions. “Help us tell the story!” the leaflet proclaimed. We were informed when to blow bubbles (for Glinda), wave gray and black scarves overhead (representing the tornado) and sing along to “Oh-ee-oh” as the wicked witch’s henchmen marched outside the wicked witch’s castle.

For many of the performers, it was their first time on stage. For others, like the enchanting Aevary Kiernan (Dorothy), the incredibly charming Frederick Schneeberger (Scarecrow), the happy, happy Nick Rupprecht (Lion) and a brave, inspiring performance from Jack Pauls (Tin Man), it represented another feather in their respective caps of appearing in Discovery Dramatic Arts productions. 

Someone once said that there’s “no such thing as small parts,” and (IMHO) each and every performer was mesmerizing. While some were content to appear briefly in scenes, others (like the fantastic Antwain Jackson) ham-ham-hammed it up to the utter delight of his fellow actors and the audience at large. Every performer commanded the stage with impressive turns as the citizens of Oz, the Winkie guards, Uncle Henry, Auntie Em, Jitterbug, the Tornado Dance Ensemble and special guest performers Mika Chaiet, Linnise Lockhart and Jada Mann as the Munchkins.

The Center’s mission, “to build a compassionate and connected community with cutting-edge care and education for the most medically and behaviorally complex individuals” was on my mind throughout the show—and a conversation about the production with Denise Sullivan brought that point home. Sullivan, who sits on the Friends of The Center committee and has worked at TCFD’s Hurleyville Makers Lab, is no stranger to what the dramatic arts program provides. 

“What strikes me most is the way the day students and residents evolve in these programs,” she said. “One resident always enjoyed dancing and has been doing so in various shows produced here, but in the Wizard of Oz adaptation, he sang and danced. Solo. They find a way,” she continued, “for a nonverbal participant to have a major role in a production.”

“The joy of the families seeing these sons and daughters actually performing onstage is contagious,” Denise said in conclusion, “and makes me cry happy tears at every show.”

Honestly, I cried as well, but not simply because of the families and their reaction to the show, but from the utter joy that I observed in the performers themselves. 

Whether it was Kadeidra Deas (the wicked witch) scaring the daylights out of us without saying a word; Tommy Abelson (the wizard himself) handing out hearts, diplomas and medals; Lia Amato (Glinda); or our esteemed narrator, Anthony Spinner, who faced his fears and took a bow with the rest of the cast, each and every one made a lasting impression.

I was so inspired by their performances and dedication of the talented director, musicians, staff and crew. Seeing them strut their stuff moved me deeply in a way that few productions, even on Broadway, ever have. In the days that followed, I reached out to Cris, Denise and finally director Loretto, who had this to say: “Year after year, our productions remind me of the power of the arts. While performing on stage, our actors are developing confidence in themselves and their abilities. They are experiencing the power of contributing to something bigger than themselves, creating strong friendships and taking risks… all in the spirit of making art. I’m so incredibly proud of how our actors rose to the occasion.”

I felt privileged to be in the audience that night, and learned so much about how people with varying abilities can (IMHO) teach the rest of us. Each year, The Center for Discovery “serves 1,200 children and adults from across New York State and beyond,” and is “improving the local and state economy, the fields of education, healthcare and research, and most of all, the lives of individuals with complex conditions, such as autism.” 

“When you’re at The Center for Discovery, you discover hope, positivity and optimism,” stated Michael Dowling, CEO, Northwell Health. In other words, there’s no place like home.

The Center for Discovery, wizard of oz, SUNY New Paltz


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