By Patti Rasmussen
Signal Staff Writer
It’s been said there is place for everyone in theater and nothing in the Santa Clarita Valley better exemplifies that expression than the cast and crew at Major Impact Theater, or MIT.
From the actors, writers and behind-the-scenes help, MIT is made up of physical challenged adults who seem to come alive once they stand on the stage.
The dream of Major Impact founders Shawnda Davis and Jill Garson started back in 2014. Both Davis and Garson worked together with developmentally disabled adults at a facility in the San Fernando Valley.
One year, Davis decided to put on a Christmas play and was surprised and delighted by the enjoyment from the actors and reception by the audience.
“I knew then I wanted to put on another show,” Davis said.
Born and raised in Woodland Hills, Davis said she was considered a lazy student, and the school district thought she had learning disabilities.
“There wasn’t a lot of special education classes back then,” Davis said. “It just took me a longer time to learn things.”
Davis feels because of this experience she chose to work with special need adults.
“I was confused at first with the behavior I witnessed,” Davis said. “But then I realized I was working with all these beautiful angels. I would think, wait a minute, they can do anything.”
With that realization, Davis and Garson teamed up to create Major Impact Theater. The goal of Major Impact was to expand the ability to provide educational classes in theater arts including acting, voice, diction, screenwriting, musical ensemble, musical dance and theater audition skills.
Davis said the experience has had a major impact on the performers, improving their speech, memory, self-esteem, social skills, job searching abilities, identity and confidence.
“From the very first show, I just saw the change in the performers,” Davis said. “It’s almost like the disability disappeared — a that’s a word I don’t like to use because I think we are all just different.”
Soon, the program had over 30 performers producing plays throughout the valley using any space or multi-purpose room they could rent. After several years, Major Impact was the first production company to perform in the newly renovated Newhall Family Theater last spring.
For Major Impact board President Bob Erio, that was a big step forward.
“We were extremely grateful for being able to perform at the Newhall Family Theatre, and have the support the city of Santa Clarita,” Erio said. “My vision for MIT is that it emerges into a viable performing arts program in the Santa Clarita arts community.”
Erio has seen first hand what the theater group can do when his friend and housemate had a part in a production. He started going to several shows and noticed the improvement of one actor in particular who had a speech challenge and was able to overcome it on stage. It was this “breakthrough” that inspired Erio to become more involved with MIT.
Erio has a background in entertainment and has been involved in executive management of nonprofits for people who have disabilities for 25 years.
A major goal for the organization would be to attain its own theater and involve other groups to come in at some level, so that there will be a social integration of diverse populations through performing arts, Erios said.
And there is plenty to do.
Actors not only perform, but many of them like to write the scripts that are parodies of blockbuster movies. Script-writing can take up to a year, Davis said, because many of the performers have day jobs.
Once the scripts are edited, usually by Gaston, it’s just a matter of getting the actors ready, trying on costumes and making props. MIT finds a role for anyone who wants to perform even if it’s a small part.
A special meaning
On Nov. 17, MIT will be performing yet again at the Newhall Family Theatre in “Diamond in the Rough” beginning at 6:30 p.m.
This year’s performance will have a huge void, though, and is being dedicated to a person who was very special to the program.
Davis’s partner and co-founder, Jill Gaston, lost her battle with cancer and died Oct. 25. It’s a loss that Davis feels intensely — but she’s grateful for the many people who have stepped in to fill Gaston’s shoes.
“I miss Jill,” Davis said. “Not having her on the side and knowing she not there to help is hard, but we keep practicing. I have faith that with everyone’s help it will come together backstage.”
Davis said A Chorus Line has been especially generous with discounts on costume and others have chipped in to help with backdrops and artwork, including her husband, who does all the lighting.
“The commitment, the professionalism and the strength of these performers is amazing,” Davis said. “I don’t think special needs (adults) get a lot to credit for all they can do.”
Davis encourages everyone to come to a performance and see what these performers are capable of and she promises they will make you smile.
“There is something about theater that makes everyone equal,’ Davis said. “I am surrounded by angels and I am blessed to work with them.
For more information about Major Impact Theater or to buy tickets for the upcoming show, go to www.major