When Hailey Staszkow was a freshman in the drama program at Mira Costa High School and a volunteer with Mychal's Learning Place in Hawthorne, she decided to incorporate both loves and form Anchorless Productions, a theater company for young adults with disabilities, in 2016.
Her first priority was to put on a theater production with Mychal's students.
“I wanted to unify the special needs community with the typically developing community because I feel like so many times the special needs community is shoved in their own room and separated from everybody else, but they're people too,” said Staszkow, now a senior. “ I felt like having the opportunity to unite everyone that was one of my main goals.”
Soon after, Staszkow joined forces with the Friendship Foundation two years ago to produce a stage show with the Redondo Beach-based nonprofit.
Friendship Foundation managing director Nina Patel said they are proud of expanding their performing arts program.
“We see parent's faces light up and those sitting in the audience... for the first time they're looking at children up on stage acting and memorizing lines and performing and getting a standing ovation,” Patel said.
Staszkow said they work with the students, young adults 13 and up, once or twice a week for an hour and a half to work on the show.
The Mychal's productions take place in the summer while the spring show is with the Friendship Foundation.
The seven or eight volunteers play games with the young adults for about 15 minutes to warm them up before learning a new scene or dance. They add on each to where finally an entire production takes shape.
Staszkow said there are a number of challenges putting on these productions, but her goal is to modify roles to suit every student.
“Sometimes we get a kid who doesn't speak and he wants to be in the show,” Staszkow said. “We're never going to say no. We really want to make sure everyone is having a good time and feels included."
Theatre is a form of expression, said Staszkow, and it's especially important to let students with developmental disabilities express themselves.
"One student in particular went from not speaking to saying her lines on stage in front of 100 people," said Staszkow. "It's really rewarding to see the whole progression.”
With Anchorless Productions, Staszkow wants to prove “teenagers and special needs students are able to do anything.”
“I really wanted to drive this belief that it doesn't matter how old you are, it doesn't matter if you have a developmental disability, you are still able to do amazing things and make a goal and reach it,” Staszkow said.
The next production with Friendship Foundation will be Roald Dahl's “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” in February 2020.
As director and choreographer, Staszkow said it's rewarding to make a difference in people's lives.
“To see it come to life on stage is really rewarding in itself, but seeing students who you are able to create a personal connection with and overcome their own personal challenges, it adds a whole new layer to it,” she said. “It's the most rewarding thing I have in my life.”