The admission, made by a 10-year-old latecomer in a Lion King T-shirt who occasionally buried his head in his mother’s lap, hardly fazed the drama teacher, Leslie Fanelli, 54, of New Providence.
“Just relax,” she said, momentarily pausing in her demonstration of improvisation, which involved a lot of arm-waving and singing. “Then maybe you’ll feel like joining in.”
As it turned out, he did: Like the eight other 9- to 12-year-olds who took their places beside Ms. Fanelli in front of the crescent of seats, the 10-year-old, whose mother asked that he be identified only as Evan, eventually rose to participate in an impromptu theatrical adaptation of “Abiyoyo,” the classic children’s story by Pete Seeger. The children plunked make-believe ukuleles, covered their ears and scurried from a make-believe town.
The hourlong drama class was the second in a new six-week series that began earlier this month and is tailored to children with developmental disabilities. Afterwards, Ms. Fanelli congratulated the boy and his mother for participating.
“That mom braved bumper-to-bumper traffic on Route 22 with her son, who has a major disability” — autism — “to get here,” she said later. “She had a rough time in the car and she was flustered, and so was her son. But they came because programs like this are so important.”
The class is a logical next step for Paper Mill, which last year began offering a series of sensory-friendly presentations for children with autism in its “Theater for Everyone” programming. Sensory-friendly shows are scripted to be more literal, with innuendo kept to a minimum, and the theater’s lighting and volume are adjusted to help audience members feel more comfortable.
This year, in a partnership with VSA New Jersey, a nonprofit organization that provides arts programming for children and adults with disabilities, Paper Mill joined the ranks of theaters welcoming such children who have an interest in learning to perform.
Parents of children with developmental disabilities “are seeing the benefits of arts education,” said Lisa Cooney, 46, director of education for Paper Mill. “And they’re a lot more proactive than they used to be.”
Those who run the programs find them rewarding as well. The children “give so much to us,” said Mickey McNany, the director of Paper Mill’s Theater School, after the recent class. In it, her 10-year-old granddaughter, Mary McNany, who has Down syndrome, identified Mozart as the composer of “Eine kleine Nachtmusik,” performed an improvised roller-skating scene and used sign language, as well as her voice, to sing a song.
Ms. Fanelli, the teacher, said an awareness of the short attention spans of children with developmental disabilities was crucial to reaching them. She tries to divide her class into different activities lasting around 10 minutes each; at the recent class, because the theatrical signing and charade-type games were “really cooking,” she said, she allowed them to run longer.
“I have to be in the moment,” she said. “If something’s not working I have to drop it, and when something is working I’ll extend it.”
The idea for the Paper Mill class began taking shape last year, according to Ms. McNany, 61, of Springfield, when she threw a birthday party for Mary and her friends, including some from Stepping Stones, a school in Roseland for children with Down syndrome. “There must have been 10 or 15 kids there, and we told a story and then acted it out, and afterward all the mothers came up to me and said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we could do more of this?’ ” Ms. McNany said.
Not long afterward, Ms. Cooney e-mailed Ms. McNany a link to a Web site with a video of a drama class for children with disabilities at a theater in Pittsburgh.
“So I took that cue from Lisa and said, ‘Where do we start?’ ” Ms. McNany said. Another Paper Mill colleague put her in touch with VSA New Jersey, an affiliate of VSA, a program of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. She also made contact with Ms. Fanelli, a teaching artist with VSA New Jersey who leads theater classes at schools and centers throughout New Jersey with an assistant, Sean Dineen. Mr. Dineen, 38, of Scotch Plains, an adjunct professor of history at Kean University in Union who also performs in VSA New Jersey productions, has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair.
“Sean and I are best friends,” Ms. Fanelli said, introducing him to her Paper Mill students, whose disabilities included autism, Down syndrome and deafness. She explained that Mr. Dineen’s condition sometimes causes him to gaze the wrong way when instructed to look in a certain direction. “His rainbow looks different from mine, and that’s perfectly O.K.,” she said.
It is also perfectly O.K. for those without developmental disabilities (who are referred to as “typical”) to participate in the class. At the recent installment, three typical children joined in; among them was Paige Goldstein, a 12-year-old from Springfield whose twin brother, Matthew, has autism and was in the class.
“It’s nice for them to have an activity together. That doesn’t happen much,” said Melissa Goldstein, the twins’ mother.
Ms. Fanelli, who studied theater and urban affairs at CUNY Baccalaureate in Manhattan and took a professional development course with Howard Gardner at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, said it was her relationship with her own brother, who hasTourette’s syndrome, that led to her interest in working with children with disabilities.
She recalled being asked to leave a theater performance that she attended with her brother in 1982 because a tic brought on by his disability caused him to jerk his head repeatedly, which was considered a distraction.
“Since then, I thought, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to change this, but I’m going to,’ ” she said. “My goal is to improve and celebrate acting, movement, sign language and music so it can flourish for everyone.”
Paper Mill Playhouse’s creative drama class for students with developmental disabilities runs through May 25; the $170 fee for the entire six-week session will be prorated for newcomers. The theater is at 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn. For information: (973) 315-1669 or