Jillian MacKay might seem shy at first. But when she’s onstage, she shines.
For the next two weekends, Jillian, 11, who uses a motorized wheelchair, will portray the Bronx newsie in the Fredericktowne Players production of “Newsies,” a Broadway musical that tells the true story of the New York newspaper boys who went on strike to fight the rising price of newspapers in 1899.
Jillian has spinal muscular atrophy, a degenerative condition that affects motor neurons and makes it difficult for the brain to send signals to the muscles.
She has used a wheelchair since she was 4, but that hasn’t stopped her from being involved in chorus since third grade and asking her mom, Laura MacKay, if she could begin acting.
“This seemed like a perfect opportunity,” MacKay said.
Jillian, who will attend Gov. Thomas Johnson Middle School in the fall, knocked her audition out of the park, with her perfect pitch and a sense of humor that made the production team laugh, said director Meg Williams.
Williams has known Jillian since she was born but worked hard to be neutral during the audition process because, as she told her production team, “this isn’t stunt casting.” (Stunt casting is casting that is used simply for publicity or as a gimmick.)
“[Jillian’s] the first person to have had her music memorized,” Williams said. “She comes in on time. She stays late. You know, she’s got like the perfect work ethic.”
Jillian, who wants to continue doing musical theater as she gets older, said that she hasn’t been treated differently.
“I’ve had a lot of fun,” she said.
‘Isn’t a hindrance’
MacKay worked with Williams to make sure that the environment would be an accessible one for her daughter.
“It was really nice that the studio for the Fredericktowne Players and the theater [at Frederick Community College] are all accessible,” MacKay said. “[Jillian] can get on and off, and it’s not a problem.”
Laura MacKay made special note of Ali Stoker’s speech at the Tony Awards after the wheelchair-using actress and singer won for best performance by an actress in a featured role in a musical for her role as Ado Annie in “Oklahoma.”
“It really starts at the beginning,” MacKay said. “You have to let there be ramps and stages that are able to do this and directors who are able to have a vision. ... It’s important to see that it doesn’t have to be something that’s off-limits.”
Williams said she texted MacKay as soon as Stoker won to ask if Jillian had seen her speech.
“I love that we’re living in a time where being in a wheelchair isn’t a hindrance,” Williams said. “I would love to see more theaters in this area take more seriously their diversity to do things like this.”
Williams said many local theater and arts groups work in spaces that are available and affordable versus accessible.
“I think it’s tragic that in a community as wealthy as ours there’s still such a limitation as to where we can do art that’s truly accessible for everybody to participate in,” Williams said.
Jordan Champe, 20, plays a leading role as “charming leader” Jack Kelly and said “Newsies” has always been one of his favorite musicals.
Champe said that Jillian has been a positive light at rehearsals.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” he said. “She’s always like really prepared with everything.”
Champe said he doesn’t think he’s ever been in another production where a cast member used a wheelchair, but that he hasn’t noticed a difference.
“We all kind of ... mesh together as a cast,” he said.
MacKay said the entire Fredericktowne Players group has been supportive of Jillian.
“It’s just so amazing that this entire group has really made that effort to have the inclusion and make it pretty seamless,” she said.
Hillary Templeton, 26, is also in the “Newsies” ensemble and said she’s glad the show is more accessible.
“It’s more historically accurate too because a lot of these kids who were delivering newspapers, a lot of them were, you know, disabled. ... So I think it’s a really cool thing that we’re sort of representing that.”
Templeton described Jillian as energetic.
“She’s so sweet,” Templeton said. “She’s super committed to nailing her part.”
Her mother said it’s important that Jillian’s role does not focus on her using a wheelchair.
“That’s important because you need to see people of all abilities being regular people and not having it be the focus of who they are in a show or anything,” she said.
Andrew Zabetakis, 18, said it’s great that Jillian’s role doesn’t revolve around her wheelchair.
“The wheelchair doesn’t mean anything,” he said.
Owen Raynor, 19, plays the character Davey and said working with Jillian is like having another member of the family.
Raynor said he’s been involved in theater for about 10 years and has been in productions that included people with a range of abilities.
“You have to get the community involved with the arts,” he said. “Regardless of age, race, sexuality, whatever, everyone should be involved. It’s art. It’s celebratory. ... You can’t exclude anybody from that.”