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Mary Pat Ross

Freshman Josie Ross (center) and other Mixed Precipitation Theatre Company’s actors perform in the annual ‘Picnic Operetta’. Ross has been a cast member of this production for the last two summers.

Freshman utilizes her leadership skills to benefit theater community

May 8, 2014

Making a change in the community is always a large task, especially with students’ busy schedules packed with extracurricular activities, but Josie Ross, a BSM freshman, has found a way to combine the two.

Ross is involved in Chaska Valley Family Theater (CVFT), a community theatre group open to anyone who wants to be a part of their musicals and plays. Ross has been a part of CVFT for ten years, not only performing in 20 of their shows, but serving as Student Representative to their Board of Directors.

Her idea for a project came when she saw a need to create access for one special audience group: the deaf. “In the past, Student Representatives have organized projects to raise awareness or funds for CVFT. My friend, Rachel Olson, with whom I had performed in many shows, had two deaf parents. While we appeared in a show together, Rachel’s father was in the final stages of cancer. I heard her entire family was coming to one of our shows, and she told me this might be the last time he saw her on stage. Having Rachel’s parents be able to enjoy the show sparked my idea for an access project and a way to raise money,” Ross said.

Theatre productions often involve singing, speaking, and hearing instrumental music that is being performed, meaning a performance is much more than a visual show. Without an American Sign Language Interpreter (ASL), deaf people are only able to see what is happening on stage, not hear what is happening. “I noticed that even though Rachel’s parents attended her shows, they did not have access to an important part of the production. I thought that before her dad passed, we could raise enough money to hire an ASL interpreter for the performance her parents would attend,” Ross said.

To put her own access idea into motion, Ross, along with fellow CVFT members, began raising the $300 needed for an ASL interpreter. Borrowing an idea she had seen at Benilde St. Margaret’s School plays, Ross organized volunteers to sell cards in the shape of stars so that parents, relatives, and friends could send special messages to cast members during the show.

Having reached the goal for one show, Ross decided to expand her idea and try to raise additional funds so that an ASL interpreter was available at one performance of every show that CVFT produced. She set out to establish the Chuck Olsen Memorial Fund. “To honor Rachel’s father after he passed away, we wanted to keep hiring ASL interpreters for every show because we knew that her father would want other deaf spectators to enjoy the production as much as he did,” Ross said.

In addition to the sale of the stars, Ross had to do her part by contacting many different sources. “In addition to writing letters to previous CVFT donors, I also worked with the CVFT Board to write an application to receive an accessibility grant,” Ross said.

Along with other CVFT board members, Ross continues to work with Rachel Olson to make sure experienced and professional interpreters are hired, especially people who have worked with theater productions previously. “We really appreciated Rachel’s help because she knew different ASL interpreters and agencies we could use to hire truly experienced people. She also helped us learn how to advertise and promote our ASL show to the deaf community,” Ross said.

To honor Rachel’s father after he passed away, we wanted to keep hiring ASL interpreters for every show because we knew that her father would want other deaf spectators to enjoy the production as much as he did.

— Josie Ross

Some of the insight they gained led Ross and the CVFT board to begin hiring two interpreters for each show so that deaf audience members can experience the dialogue between different characters.

This addition meant that the financial need for the memorial fund was even greater. “We hire two interpreters for every show, and they are paid $300 each, which adds up to $600 every time we have a performance. Since CVFT produces between three and five shows each season, I knew I needed to raise $3000 to launch the first season,” Ross said.

All of her fundraising efforts paid off when Ross reached her goal of raising $3000. But then the Chuck Olsen Memorial fund was the recipient of an unexpected surprise. Having heard about her fundraising efforts in a newspaper article, Ross received a check for $1000 in memory of Chuck Olsen. “This money was raised by the Olsen’s former co workers. The company matched the employees’ donations,” Ross said.

This first access project was only the beginning for Ross. While she continues her interest in appearing on stage, Ross has also found ways to extend her dedication to theatre access. She found her way to the Children’s Theatre Company (CTC) where she had attended shows and training classes since she was a child.

Ross met Deb Girdwood the director of CTC’s Act One program that is focused on improving all aspects of the theatre experience for their audience members with special needs. “CTC was just beginning to train their staff about serving families with children with autism. They allowed me to volunteer as an intern to take training with the ushers, backstage crew and actors and now I will volunteer as an Audience Member Assistant during their sensory friendly shows. This summer I also have the chance to work as a Teaching Apprentice with theatre classes for kids with special needs” Ross said.

Ross continues to work with CVFT year round, serving on their board and performing in many of their shows. She hopes to continue doing fundraising for them and help other members of the theater, while still helping others to enjoy the shows.

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