Ben Dassau and Donna Driver Team Up to Bring New Kids' Musical DON COYOTE To The Keeton Theatre Stage

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Since 2004, Ben Dassau has never missed a production at Donelson's Larry Keeton Theatre-at 23, he has attended at least one performance of every production mounted at the theatre since he was 15 and the curtain rose on the company's very first production.

Introduced to theater when a school friend scored the leading role in Annie and he came to show her support, Ben Dassau grew to love the theater (even seeing all 11 performances of that particular run of Annie) and now, he is directing a play himself. That might not be such an unusual evolution in the life of a true theater fan, but for Ben, it represents a bigger than expected achievement: Ben has cerebral palsy. His condition is on the extreme side, according to friend and playwright Donna Driver, which means that he cannot walk or talk. Still, his almost-lifelong dream has been to direct and this summer, thanks to his friends at The Larry Keeton Theatre, his dream is being realized.

Ben lives with his father, David in Old Hickory. At the age of six months, Ben was not reaching the development of a typical child at that age. Shortly after Christmas 1989 his parents were informed that he had cerebral palsy. At the age of 5, Ben was assessed for the use of an augmentative communication device, his "talker." 

He took to it quickly, letting everyone know that he was very aware of what was going on around him and used it to bridge the gap in scholastic development and social interaction. He has actually now become an expert with this device, doing presentations and helping younger children learn how to use their devices.

Two years ago, Ben decided he was tired of just being a part of the audience at The Larry Keeton Theatre and joined the children's summer theater camp. The first summer, he just enjoyed the classes, but in 2011, he got to be onstage as a cast member of Disney's Camp Rock

It was during this time that Ben told Jane Schnelle, executive producer at The Keeton,  that he what he really wanted to do is direct-a dream he'd also talked about with Donna Driver, an award-winning children's book author, veteran stage performer and a teacher of children with special needs. Driver was sharing the stage with Ben in Disney's Camp Rock at the time, so she suggested a possible vehicle to make his dream come true: an original musical she wrote called Don Coyote.

The show, obviously, is a modern take on the classic tale of Don Quixote.  In this tale, a young boy namEd Scott, whose parents have recently divorced, is living with his mom, older sister and grandfather. Bored because his parents are upset all the time, Riley is an attitude-filled teenager and his grandpa is old, Scott has no friends his own age to play with-until one morning when his grandpa appears, dressed like a cowboy, claiming to be Don Coyote, a Wild West hero, who is out to stop the evil VooDoo Queen.

Scott is recruited to be Don Coyote's sidekick Scout (modeled on Sancho Panza, naturally) and the pair sets off on all manner of wild and woolly adventures.  Everyone is certain Grandpa has lost his mind, but Scott is positive Grandpa is just playing with him and sets out to prove it.

Ben has been involved with the play from its inception, Driver explains. Both she and Ben see this as an opportunity for him to experience how a play is put together from start to finish (or from inception to the final curtain), and he is learning a lot about production techniques in the process.  

"Ben Read early drafts of the script, participated in a production meetingz, and he helped audition the cast," she says. "Because he needs to use his talker to communicate, rehearsals were stretched out over a couple months and only on weekend afternoons."

By doing this, the team was able to correspond with one another over the week through emails. Driver sends Dassau notes about what to expect at the upcoming rehearsal, and he sends notes back about what he would like to see happen next time they are together.

Sometimes they will come up with some ideas of things he can program his talker to say, like when he programmed it to tell the cast, "That was very good, and it would be perfect if we were just sitting at a table together. Remember that you may be speaking to a sold out crowd. You need to be loud enough for people in the back to hear you. Do it again." 

Ben can also do a little sign language with his right hand to tell people to stop, that he's watching them, to do something again, and to tell people they are being crazy. That is a favorite gesture!  He can easily type messages that have just a few words.  And his first major request as a director? That Donna didn't make the mistake of scheduling a rehearsal on the same date as his birthday celebration.

Gary Kaplan heads the cast as Don Coyote, with Charlie Webb playing Scott. Rounding out the adults in the cast are Steve Mogck as the dad, Memory Strong as the mom, Dale Sheppard as Officer  O'Donnell, Rae Robeson as Scott's older sister and Amelia Young and Caroline Robeson as her best friends. Nine local children are enjoying playing all of Don Coyote's crazy games, including Caylin Maguire, Miranda Bilbrey, Wilder Strong, Anderson Strong, Ashlyn Sheppard, Jenna Feusting, Callie Hargis, Jonah Smith and Amy Dassau, Ben's younger sister.

"There are some really lovely performances, especially by Memory Strong, Steve Mogk and Rae Robeson," Driver says. "And Jane Kelley, who is musical director for the show, has donated a ton of time to helping play all our rehearsals and will be playing for the show as well."

- Don Coyote will be performed Friday and Saturday, June 29 and 30, at The Larry Keeton Theater, 108 Donelson Pike in Nashville. Shows are at 7 p.m., with a 2 p.m. matinee on Saturday. Tickets are $10 for adults, $5 for children and special needs friends. Dressing in western costume is encouraged. For details, call (615) 883-8375 or at www.thelarrykeetontheatre.org.

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Jeffrey Ellis Jeffrey Ellis is a Nashville-based writer, editor and critic, who's been covering the performing arts in Tennessee for more than 25 years. He is the recipient of the Tennessee Theatre Association's Distinguished Service Award for his coverage of theatre in the Volunteer State and was the founding editor/publisher of Stages, the Tennessee Onstage Monthly. He is a past fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center and is the founder/executive producer of The First Night Honors, held during Labor Day Weekend, which honor oustanding theater artists in Tennessee in recognition of their lifetime achievements and includes The First Night Star Awards and the Most Promising Actors. Midwinter's First Night, held the first Sunday in January after New Year's Day, honors outstanding productions and performances throughout the state. Further, Ellis directed the Nashville premiere of La Cage Aux Folles, The Last Night of Ballyhoo and An American Daughter, as well as award-winning productions of Damn Yankees, Company, Gypsy and The Rocky Horror Show, with Ellis honored by The Tennessean as best director of a musical for both Company and Rocky Horror.


 
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