Assisting those with autism

Stephen Santa and Rebecca Covert are the founders of Jumping Jack Theater. Covert is a 1996 graduate of the Warrior Run High School and recently completed and artist in residency working with special education students in the district.

TURBOTVILLE — Inspired by her own son, and a love of the arts and education, a 1996 graduate of the Warrior Run High School co-founded a theater company which focuses on providing programs to students with autism.

“I was in theater, in music, ever since middle school/high school,” said Rebecca Covert, a Warrior Run graduate.

While in high school, Covert said she had the lead in several musical productions.

“Theater was always a part of my life,” she said. “When I went to school, I started to work with kids at the University of Pittsburgh child care center. I started doing a lot of work with kids.”

Eventually, Covert received a master’s degree in education from Duquesne University. She began working as a teaching artist.

“A teaching artist goes to the classroom and uses their art form to show teachers how they can use the arts to teach their regular curriculum,” Covert explained. “I have used movement to teach engineering.”

She worked in that capacity for about 16 years, serving with numerous Pittsburgh-area organizations.

“When my son was diagnosed with autism, I started shifting to get to know him better,” Covert said.

Her son, Jack, is now 10 years old and a student in the Warrior Run School District.

Covert, her husband Robert Bieber and Jack now live in McEwensville.

Following her son’s diagnosis as autistic, Covert started working in special education.

After learning of a New York City production company which provides sensory-friendly programs to students with autism, Covert realized such an endeavor would perfectly align with her background.

She teamed with Stephen Santa to form the Pittsburgh-based Jumping Jack Theater.

The theater company is named after Covert’s son.

“When working out a company name, Stephen wanted it to honor Jack and our journey raising him,” she said. “The kid is always bouncing around the house... It was the prefect fit, playful, sensory rich and engaging, just like we wanted our productions to be.”

Between October through March, Covert completed a 20-day artist in residency program in the Warrior Run School District, working with special education students.

The residency was administered by the Perry County Council on the Arts, an education partner with the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts.

Covert said she worked with students in areas including music and rhyme, improvisation, role playing and puppetry. Her theater company will present a program for Warrior Run’s special education students on May 31.

“Our shows are very intimate,” she said. “They’re designed for kids with disabilities. We limit our audience to about 25, 30... The actors interact with the students.”

The production which will be presented for the Warrior Run students, titled “Cityscape,” was created by Jumping Jack Theater.

“It was important, in every show we do, to have a character that can relate to our audience,” Covert said. “The main character (in ‘Cityscape’) is non-verbal.”

Warrior Run will be the 11th school district where “Cityscape” will be performed, and the first outside of Western, Pennsylvania.

Most recently, the show was performed at the EQT Children’s Theater Festival in Pittsburgh, which includes performances from theater companies from around the world.

She enjoys working with students in the classroom, and then having her theater company bring a production to the school that the students can enjoy.

“It’s magical, it’s so cool because we are setting the stage in the classroom for them to get the most out of the show that they can,” Covert said.

When she sees students at a production, she notices a look of recognition in their eyes as they enjoy the show.

“Parents like myself couldn’t normally take their children to a theater production,” Covert said. “It’s nice to see parents... and teachers... enjoying the show with the children.”

To date, Jumping Jack Theater has developed two shows through the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust.

“One of them was a regular theater production, a bigger show,” Covert said. “The other is our touring show, which is coming to Warrior Run.”

She describes the theater company as being “grass roots.”

“The cast is three actresses, for (‘Cityscape’),” Covert said. “We work out of our home... We have (other) full-time jobs... We are trying to grow (Jumping Jack Theater). We love what we do.”

Staff writer Kevin Mertz can be reached at 570-742-9671 or email kevin@standard-journal.com.

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