When Jon and James Huebner performed in their first Home and Community Options (HCO) play, over ten years ago, they were nonverbal. They could say a few words or phrases, but at nine years old, the twin autistic brothers essentially did not talk. Then HCO started giving them speaking lines in front of hundreds of people.
Photo by Chris Rogers
. Paul Ebner (left) who plays the Cat in the Hat, with Jon and James Huebner (center and at right) in the Home and Community Options (HCO) production of "Seussical." The Huebner twins are two of more than 20 HCO clients who will perform in the Dr. Seuss-inspired musical. It opens Thursday.
It is hard to imagine now that they were nonverbal just over a decade ago. The two brothers bantered about their latest acting role before rehearsal last week. They sing, rhyme, and hold court as Judge Yertle the Turtle in HCO's latest production, "Seussical." The twin brothers play Yertle in tandem; Jon described the character as a two-headed turtle. James explained it is a natural fit because "we have a very strong twin bond." They are intensive in their mental preparation for the role, as well.
As Yertle, Jon and James preside over the case of The People versus Horton the Elephant and weigh the merits of Horton's claims that tiny people called Whos live on a dust speck. Judge Yertle is pompous and skeptical. "Order in the court!" James bellowed while Jon pounded the gavel.
To get into character "we think of something that gets us thinking like a very slow turtle, very diplomatic. We think of something that makes us very serious; like we think Horton is nuts," James explained.
Jon and James practiced one of their favorite Judge Yertle lines in unison, an emphatic ruling that "we heard no small voices and you didn't either!"
"They're natural actors," said their father, Don Huebner. "I think, in ways, being autistic enhances their acting because they can become characters easily."
The Huebner twins are two of twenty HCO clients who are acting in "Seussical," a musical "mash-up" of Dr. Seuss classics. HCO, which offers advocacy, housing, and programming for the developmentally disabled, presents fundraising plays that mix disabled and non-disabled in spirited productions. This is their biggest ever. Forty or more clients are stage hands or helped building set pieces. The 70-member cast has been rehearsing their songs and dances for weeks with the pit orchestra. Even more people are on hand to guide young clients through the jungle of set pieces backstage to their marks. Director Mark Roeckers manages all of it. The longtime HCO actor was the first to spot and develop Jon and James' acting potential, too.
Roeckers "saw something in Jon and James and they grew because of it," Jean Huebner explained. He took Jon and James aside at rehearsals and taught them acting fundamentals and gave them pointers on their scenes."Their communication skills, their self-confidence, and their career goals," all blossomed, Jean said. The most valuable product of the experience was friendship, though. Roeckers was the first person outside of the family to really closely befriend Jon and James, she said. Roeckers would slap them on the back after rehearsal, saying, "Come on, guys, let me show you a few things." Through rehearsals, which give everyone offstage plenty of time for socializing, Jon and James made many more friends. "They actually had friends," Jean said. "For people with developmental disabilities that's a hard thing to come by."
"Just the people, just the friends," agreed Troy Fegre, when asked why he keeps coming back year after year. "Seussical" will be his 13th performance with HCO. He plays Vlad Vladikov, a bad guy of sorts. Fegre grinned ear to ear explaining how he steals Horton's flower.
A first-time performer, young Jillian Fredrickson sat with her mother before rehearsal, engrossed in watching the dancers were warming up. Jillian, who plays a jungle citizen and hula hoops in the play, said people should come see the play "for the hula hoops."
The HCO production "gives [clients] an opportunity to find new skills, they may not have known they had," said Karl Hoppe, who stars as Horton the Elephant. "It's exciting to see people come out their shell."
It is not hard to come by during the HCO production, though. "The community draws you back," he said Karl Hoppe.
The HCO plays are not just fundraisers, but a life-changing experience for participants. "A lot of our clients look forward to this all year long," said Roeckers. "More than Christmas."
"It's the best thing we've even done," said Development Director Dennis Theede. The organization could host a fancy dinner or a golf outing, but the plays are a beautiful way of accomplishing the organization's mission of integrating disabled people and the rest of the community while making up for cuts in state funding for HCO's housing programs. "Fundraising for nonprofits can be very distracting from your primary mission; this one is not," Theede said. "I went back from rehearsal with a big smile on my face, thinking, 'This is why I'm doing it.'"
Jean Huebner said she could not say enough good things about what the plays have done for Jon and James. "HCO is truly family," she said.
"Seussical" will open on Thursday, June 12, and run through Tuesday, June 17, at the Page Theatre at St. Mary's University. Shows start at 7 p.m. each night, except Sunday, when the performance begins at 5 p.m. Tickets are $17 for adults, $12 for seniors over 62, and $8 for children under 12. Tickets can be purchased online at pagetheatre.org/events or by calling the Page Theatre box office at 507-457-1715.