Share The Spotlight NY provides acting classes to students with learning disabilities

Share The Spotlight NY provides acting classes to students with learning disabilities
Tess Romero and Ann Gray Graf lead a class of students for Share The Spotlight NY. (Photo courtesy of Tess Romero)

Schreiber High School junior Tess Romero knew she wanted to be an actor when she was only 4 years old and asked her parents how she could be in The Fresh Beat Band, a Nickelodeon children’s show.

She went on to pursue acting, getting an agent at the age of 7 and acting in the lead of the Disney Channel show “Diary of a Future President” as Elena Cañero-Reed after her 198th audition.

But Romero didn’t stop there and was inspired to teach acting to younger kids to help them pursue what she was passionate about as well.

It wasn’t until her brother, who has a learning disability, was acting in his first play and was treated harshly due to his different needs that Romero was inspired to start her new venture as an acting teacher.

“He’s always been a performer,” Romero said. “But he hated it because the director and the people there did not understand. They were super harsh on him and didn’t understand what he needed and that they needed to treat him differently. And it was really upsetting because he was turned off to acting and he didn’t want to go back, he didn’t want to act anymore.”

Romero founded Share The Spotlight NY in 2021 to prevent any other person from having an experience like her brother had.

She partnered with her acting coach, Ann Gray Graf, to found Share The Spotlight NY, an inclusive acting class catering to students with special needs and disabilities.

The class is held Sunday mornings at the Actor’s Garage, Gray Graf’s acting studio in Manhasset, which has trained hundreds of actors in film, television and Broadway over two decades.

Each class is different, Romero said, as they don’t have a specific set structure for the class proceedings. She said this is so that they can meet their students’ daily needs, allowing the aspiring actors to lead the class.

A typical class starts with a physical warm-up, something like jumping jacks or stretching. Romero said this approach personally helps her get ready for acting as it connects her with her body. She said it offers the same benefits for their students, some of whom are hyperactive.

Many of the students are shy or have challenges with public speaking and performing, so the class is designed to make them feel more comfortable as they work on these skills. One method is having a family member present in the class to support them, sometimes standing with them as they recite lines in front of the class.

“We try not to push them too much, just encourage them,” Romero said.

Breaks are peppered throughout the class, allowing the students to step out and take a moment whenever they need to.

“It’s not that much different than from a regular acting class because these are regular actors,” Romero said. “We’re just being conscious of their needs and trying to respect whatever they need.”

Gray Graf agreed that this class is just like the other classes she hosts in The Garage.

“It is what we teach in a regular class, but at a speed and in a way that it is easier for them to understand,” Gray Graf said.

Students act in a class for Share The Spotlight NY. (Photo courtesy of Tess Romero)

At the end of every session, the class is supposed to participate in a showcase in front of agents and managers. The goal typically is to get a callback, but Gray Graf said their goal is to get the students to be confident enough to show up, which none have wanted to do yet.

Romero said an integral aspect of the class is confidence-building for the students as they work on skills that are challenging for them. Seeing their students’ growing confidence is something both Romero and Gray Graf value the most from the class.

Liz Milner’s daughter, Quinn Milner, participates in the class and her mother said it has helped her build her self-esteem.

“She really benefits from being able to take on a new role and being given the freedom to be herself,” Liz Milner said. “Also this is just an opportunity for her to express herself in different ways.”

Liz Milner said that there is something about Share The Spotlight that is unlike any other program her daughter has participated in and it has been fun for Quinn Milner and their family.

“It’s something else,” Liz Milner said.

Romero said it is fulfilling and heartwarming to hear this sort of feedback.

Gray Graf said that while the class is held in her studio and this is her profession, Share The Spotlight NY is a true collaboration between her and Romero.

“She brings her own curriculum, it’s not just me at all,” Gray Graf said.

As Share The Spotlight wrapped up its last session just a few weeks ago, Romero said they were already looking forward to the next session they will host in the fall when students return for school after the summer vacation.

Romero and Gray Graf said they are excited for Share The Spotlight to continue and grow as it progresses and provides this unique space for their students.

“There is abundance in this world and for everybody,” Gray Graf said. “And there is a place for them. So just because they have different abilities, not a disability, doesn’t mean there’s not a place for them.”

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