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“Let It Go!” Building Confidence and Skills Through Theater

Tanya Castiello poses with flowers after her theater performanceTanya Castiello, from Citizens’ Pickwick Residence, had her first spotlight moment in a summer performance of Disney’s Frozen at Cultural Playhouse in Syosset. The first-year acting student advocated for more independence and to have something she could call her own.

Tanya knew she always loved music, movies, and Broadway. She wanted to explore new ways to improve her skills and make new relationships outside of her group home. She said she wanted to find her own hobby, outside of always doing things with either her family or housemates. So, her Pickwick residential team, including House Manager Pamela Iliou, helped her to find a new opportunity.

“It was fun having my own thing for once,” Tanya said. “I loved it. I’m excited to go back in the fall.”

Tanya performed three songs during the recital, one of which was a solo. In the audience, her housemates and staff cheered her on. After the show, they handed her several beautiful floral arrangements before heading off for a celebratory post-show dinner.

When Tanya first joined Cultural Playhouse acting classes in September of 2022; she was shy, quiet, and nervous to sing in front of an audience.

Tanya and her fellow theater performers pose for a photo“Little by little, she got more confident and capable,” Valerie Quaresimo, class instructor, said. “She went from being hesitant to singing her very first solo.”

The turning point for Tanya was when Valerie noticed her hiding out in the bathroom during class one day. Valerie knocked on the door and the two sat down to talk about what was going on.

“She said, ‘I’m nervous, I can’t do this,’” Valerie said. “I told her, ‘You can do it,’ and she did.”

Valerie grew up shy herself, stating, “Theater changed my life,” to which Tanya replied, “It changed my life too.”

The class has, on average, 15 students and is specifically designed for those with an intellectual or developmental disability (I/DD). The class meets once a week for an hour and a half from September to June. In that time, two performances are held. First, the class votes on musical performances and the direction that the play will go. Next, the group decides who will be performing what, and then divide up the solos, duets, and group acts.

“Everyone gets a turn, so they feel confident,” she said. “It’s a supportive and fun class, but underneath it all is the foundation of theater and technique.”Tanya and her fellow theater performers take a bow

The class helps build life skills they can take everywhere they go, like verbal articulation, waiting your turn, sharing by taking turns, and boosting confidence and self-esteem.

“I saw a huge improvement in all of my students this year ― that’s always my goal. I do it to impart wisdom and skills, but also to see them grow into themselves and be happy; that is the ultimate reward.”

In 2011, Valerie originally created the acting and dance program for all ages and abilities. She has since closed down many of the classes and is now focused only on expanding opportunities in theater for Long Islanders with an I/DD.

As for Tanya? She is back in Valerie’s acting class for a second year and is looking forward to putting on their winter performance.

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