Debbie Goncalves Dreams Big for Her Special Needs Actors in TA-DA Productions

by | Oct 23, 2019 | Changemaker Of The Week

“Ta-da!” sang a chorus of actors—the signature ending of every theatrical production staged by TA-DA Productions, or Theatre Adapted for Different Abilities, based out of Old Bridge, New Jersey. This time, however, the tradition had special significance for founder Debbie Goncalves.

After all, it wasn’t every day that she got to see a reprisal of the song “Little Town” from “Beauty and the Beast”—the first musical number she ever staged—performed as a reunion show by her original cast 19 years later.

“It brought chills to my body and tears to my eyes to know that this program worked for them then and worked for them now,” said Goncalves.
The program—which evolved into an activity for teens and adults with special needs to express themselves artistically and to fine-tune social, motor, and language skills—started out as skits that Goncalves, who is an elementary special education teacher, created with her students for her school’s talent show.

It wasn’t until she learned about TPP that she realized that her skits could be something much more.

“I had done the skits for years, but then I discovered that this concept could be done on a larger scale for students all over the town, not just the elementary school. TA-DA Productions happened when I saw a story about The Pollination Project and decided that the idea I had on the back burner for so many years could come true…The initial seed grant from The Pollination Project got us started! I was able to make my dream come alive by having the means to purchase the basic items we needed to get the theatre program up and running. And, now, we haven’t looked back! We have grown each year from participation to support to guests in our audience.”

The success of the program is important to Goncalves not just because of the time and effort she and her actors put in (the rigors of the program require attendance at frequent rehearsals and participation in all aspects of production) but because of the positive outcomes it provides for her players.

“Through their participation, the actors have formed social relationships that now exist outside of our theatre program. Furthermore, not only has my program improved the lives of those who participate in it but those around us in the community… I want the community to understand that everyone, no matter what, has a right to be a part of the community. To be valued for what they can do, not what they can’t do. The community needs to be educated on what it is to be disabled. People who have attended our show for the first time are shocked by what my performers can do. Through our performances, I want the world to accept their differences and support them.”

So, when the cast of her original musical number came together nearly 20 years later to celebrate the strides Goncalves had made with the program, she—and the 300+ person audience–couldn’t help but get emotional.

“There wasn’t a dry eye in the house,” she said. “All of the kids from the program cheered them on and supported them. It was a great night.”

Goncalves’s next production, which debuts in early June, is themed “Dancing through the Decades,” and will feature her players dancing to musical numbers from the 50s to modern day. And even though running this program is a lot of work, and is staffed only by volunteers, Goncalves remains ambitious for her kids.

“We want to keep growing to get bigger. We started with eight students and last year we had 17. We want to get more and more audience participation and to get even more popular in the community,” she said.

Goncalves’ biggest dream, however, is a very personal wish for her actors, to whom she devotes so much time, energy, and love. “I want to take my kids to Broadway. I would love to hire a bus, take them to see a Broadway show, and go to dinner—the whole true New York experience. They’ve never done that. That’s my ultimate dream for them.”

If you’d like to support Goncalves and TA-DA Productions (and maybe help her kids get to New York!), please visit here for more information:

Written by Carolyn Ashworth