Sisters Amber and Anna Stevenson are enthusiastic dancers and performers – but it's rare they get to share the limelight.
Now, they're among 41 Kiwi kids making history by starring in what may be New Zealand's first ever fully inclusive children's musical produced by a professional company.
Madagascar – A Musical Adventure Junior is based on Dreamworks' beloved movie and features the original music and lyrics along with favourite characters Alex the Lion, Marty the Zebra, Melman the Giraffe, Gloria the Hippo and the plotting penguins.
It's being staged by Touch Compass, the professional dance company started in 1997 to create opportunities for disabled and non-disabled performers and reach diverse audiences.
The Madagascar cast are aged 6-18 and almost half have some kind of disability or learning difference including Autism, Cerebral Palsy, Down Syndrome and Spina Bifida.
Amber, 14 and a pupil at Takapuna Grammar's School's Special Education unit, was asked to audition when Touch Compass representatives spotted her tearing up the dance floor at a disco. It's the first-time she's participated in a musical theatre show of this scale and she says it's a chance to play alongside her best friends, including younger sister Anna.
Anna, 12, is actively involved in various North Shore musical theatre groups – Madagascar is one of four shows she appears in this year – and says she appreciates the way Touch Compass works, taking time to go over things and ensuring everyone is brought together as equals.
Dad Mark says both his daughters love dancing but are seldom treated as equals when they do things together.
"Sometimes they've done shows in classes – and the classes have been amazing – but you'll find Amber at the back or sometimes the other way round with a lot of fuss made about Amber to the detriment of Anna," he says. "Here it's quite nice that they're both on stage and seen as Anna and Amber not Amber's got Down Syndrome; Anna hasn't."
Touch Compass' General Manager Charlotte Nightingale says the company aims to create an environment where everybody thrives. That means looking at the needs of each performer, so different ways of auditioning, teaching and rehearsing are tailored to suit individuals.
Nightingale, who directs the musical, says auditions were relaxed and involved workshops, free dancing and improvisation without an emphasis on learning a block of script or set songs and dance moves. She believes the more conventional methods can exclude people, including those with anxiety, who are amazing performers.
"You just might learn differently and need a bit of extra time to get to that stage where you can perform," she said. "The opportunity to be part of a show might not even be offered so it's about us – Touch Compass –seeking out people and saying, 'hey, this is for you – you can be part of this, too.'
"Kids with disabilities often want to do something mainstream; it's about not putting people in silos – it's about everybody being part of everything that we do and that is so important in our society."
The show will be fully accessible, with signing by a young interpreter who is deaf. There is also special relaxed show for young theatregoers with autism and sensory sensitivities and one show will be audio-described for those who are blind or have low vision.
Madagascar – A Musical Adventure Junior is at Belmont's The Rose Centre and runs until Sunday.