Actors' strengths shine in 'Wizard of Oz' production
Roseville and Granite Bay Press Tribune, March 6, 2010
by Megan Wood
Under the bright lights of the Magic Circle Theatre, Valcour speaks with a purpose, dances with ease and sings with complete confidence.
Offstage, he becomes quiet, standoffish, and has difficulty with the rhythm and comprehension of everyday conversation.
Onstage, you would never guess that the 37-year-old with a powerful singing voice has autism, a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects one in every 150 American children.
But SENSE Theatre and its co-founder Blythe Corbett have given Valcour and his 14 fellow cast mates of all ages diagnosed with varying degrees of autism a chance at showbiz.
"Theater is transforming for anyone, regardless of their abilities," Corbett said. "But for children with autism, it's a vehicle for them to express themselves and be social with other typically developing children."
For the past eight years, Corbett has been studying the social and emotional processes in children with autism at the MIND Institute at UC Davis. A former actress herself, Corbett saw theater as a form of intervention to improve the functioning of children with autism.
SENSE Theatre is now in its second year bringing Dorothy and the gang to life with "The Wizard of Oz."
The program has partnered with the Magic Circle Theatre's master class, which recently held their own production of "The Wizard of Oz," to pair typically developing children with counterparts with varying degrees of autism. The children act alongside their "buddies" in full stage productions that improve their social interaction skills.
Ten-year-old Sammie Lee Wilhoit is a veteran actor with Magic Circle, having been in productions since she was 4. Her rolle in "The Wizard of Oz" represents her 28th production, but none has been as impactful as her role with SENSE.
"(From) the first day we met our buddies to how they are onstage now has been amazing," Sammie said. They're all so good and have improved so much."
Sammie is partnered with Claire Patton to provide guidance and onstage support in her roles as an Ozian and a monkey.
"Before she wanted her mom all the time and would whisper everything," Sammie said. Now she talks to everyone and gives hugs and actually enjoys being on stage. I'm so proud of her."
SENSE parent Becky Leung has seen her son, Eric, make major strides, in his social skills and coping with conflict.
He's very rigid. Everything has to stick to schedule or he gets upset. Leung said, "But in theater, not everything is routine. There's changes and he's doing better with that."
A big improvement in her son came on the night costumes were handed out. Eric, a munchkin in the production, was handed his green ensemble and, to his mother's surprise, didn't have an ouutburst about the change in wardrobe.
"He normally will only wear blue and white, his school uniform colors." Leung said, "Wearing all black and now the bright green without a fit is a big step for him."
At first, Leung said she was nervous about 12-yeear-old Eric's reaction to being onstage without her supervision. But with the help of his "buddy" Eric has taken his role, singing, dancing and all, in stride.
"He loves to sing, and being able to do the other things in the play have really built up his confidence," Leung said. He has a lot of support and positive reinforcement here. This gives him something he'll remember for a very long time
The number of autistic adults is on the rise - while help for them is falling short
by Linda Xiques
Michael is an autistic man of 37 with "delayed language processing," which means the quick pace of conversation is difficult for him. But when he opens his mouth to sing, it's a different story. His rich baritone soars through complex classical works by Handel or Mozart, or he can strum his guitar and sing an early Bill Withers tune. He has performed at all sorts of fundraising events, and recently participated in a special production of The Wizard of Oz. Once he steps off the stage, however, he's back to being reticent Michael Valcour, locked in by autism. His parents are immensely proud of his accomplishments, but they worry about his life in years to come. Who will provide him companionship, supervision and guidance when they are gone? Where will he find the sheltered privacy he needs? Meanwhile, they devote much of their life to seeking opportunities for him to express himself through music.
Michael Valcour on the Road
Newsletter, Casa Allegra Community Services
Michael has been autistic since birth and has attended special education classes most of his life. As a non-verbal child, music was the only thing that comforted him. He began playing musical instruments as a teenager, such as violin and trumpet, then found guitar and singing.
With the help of Casa Allegra Community Services individualized programs, Donna Dutton, a retired choral music teacher and Linda Noble, a College of Marin voice teacher, Michael took classes at COM where he sang in both the College Chorus and Martin Frick's Chamber Singers.
Michael's mother, Kathy, has said, "We're amazed at what he's done. He just keeps growing." He plays guitar, leads children's songs in special education classes, performs at events including CACS Holiday Parties and Special Olympics. Since moving to Sacramento in 2003, Michael has performed with Actors for Autism and the Governor's Committee for the Employment of Disabled Persons. Michael entertained an audience of 300 at the 26th Annual Cal-TASH Conference: Strengthening and Sustaining Inclusive Communities, in February in Burlingame.
Michael continues to study music and practices daily. Visit YouTube and type "ARTS and Keri Bowers" in the search box, and you will see Michael at the very end of the clip. Keri is the director of Normal People Scare Me, Normalfilms.com.
Catholic Herald, 3/27/2007
by Nancy Westlund
That was seven years ago, on the wedding day of my niece, Pagette Aduna, her brother Michael Valcour’s voice took my breath away.
Since then, Michael has sung in countless concerts and performed in front of huge audiences from San Francisco to Hollywood.
There was a gig with entertainer Huey Lewis at a Marin fund-raiser, open mike performances at the Joey Travolta Family Theatre in Los Angeles, and music engagements at City Hall in San Francisco and at the state Capitol.
But Michael’s story is not about a singer with obvious talent seeking fame.
It’s about parents discovering their child locked in another world, then choosing to enter that world with faith and determination to set him free.
Born in Daly City, Calif., on Jan. 22, 1973, Michael Valcour, 34, was a beautiful baby.
But during the first year of his life, Michael’s parents, Kathy and Arnold Valcour, found their second-born child was incredibly quiet, never looking directly at his parents or anyone else.
“I remember walking up the stairs, holding him and talking to him and feeling like I was talking to the wall,” said Kathy Valcour, during an interview last month in the Valcour’s Sacramento home. “Around the age of one, I waited to hear the word ‘mama’ and did not hear it.”
Michael began crying in the night, and his parents discovered there was only one thing that comforted him.
“Music seemed to be good for him,” Arnold Valcour said. “We even started singing when we talked to him.”
When Michael was two, the Valcours’ concern over their young son escalated as his verbal expression was limited to repeating the alphabet and numbers while watching “Sesame Street” television shows.
After naming one of his favorite "Sesame Street" songs at that time, Michael told me he remembers “wishing he had the sounds” to sing along.
By the time her son was three, Kathy Valcour, a former elementary school teacher, remembered reading about autism in a psychology class and wondered if Michael might be autistic.
But when she asked his pediatrician about that possibility, she was given a diagnosis of “delayed development.”
Consequently, Michael was enrolled in the Marin Child Development Center near the Valcour’s Novato home.
When Michael was five, he was, in fact, diagnosed with autism.
A complex brain disorder that inhibits a person’s ability to communicate and develop social relationships, autism is, according to a 2007 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, increasingly prevalent. Incidents of autism have risen from one in 166 children in January 2004 to one in 150 today.
Once Michael was diagnosed as autistic, the Valcours worked tirelessly with public and private school officials to devise an Individual Education Plan that would provide the one-on-one instruction he needed to succeed.
But they eventually became alarmed upon observing their son began demonstrating somewhat bizarre, negative behavior such as hitting and kicking.
Then Michael’s parents saw a television show which would be the answer to their prayers. The show featured Barry and Susie Kaufman and their autistic child, Raun, who was close in age to Mike but behaving normally.
Arnold Valcour decided to fly to New York to meet with the Kaufmans.
“They told us to accept Michael where he is, be with him and enjoy him and bring him over into our world,” Arnold Valcour said.
If Michael bounced up and down, his parents bounced up and down. They did what he did 12 hours a day, and rejoiced as Michael began talking and making eye contact.
Then when Michael was 10, the family, then members of Our Lady of Loretto Parish in Novato, had an even more powerful, life-changing experience.
“Michael led us back to church, closer together, closer to God,” Kathy Valcour said, explaining that due to Michael’s delayed language processing skills, he had not been enrolled in religious education classes or received the sacraments of baptism and confirmation.
In fact, the entire family had drifted away from church.
After consultation with their pastor, the Valcours began attending “Life in the Spirit” seminars, a program that provides instruction on the power of the Holy Spirit in people’s lives. They attended religious education classes and Mass as a family.
Michael’s older sister Pagette, then a teen-ager, introduced Michael to Christian rock, a form of music he continues to enjoy singing today.
“The Holy Spirit was moving through our lives,” Kathy Valcour said. “It gave us the courage to go on.”
Michael began attending a private school in Novato that provided one-on-one instruction, formed relationships with children his age, and ...
The power of love bridges the worlds of autism and opera
Novato Advance, September 4, 2001
by Patricia Goodin
When Michael Valcour was 2 years old, his mother Kathleen would sing "Yankee Doodle Dandy" to him. Michael would bang the rhythm of the song on his mother's leg. On Sunday, September 9, 26 years later, Michael will sing classical opera and contemporary pieces in a formal solo recital at the College of Marin. Mastering the difficult areas by such masters as Handel and Schubert is a daunting task for the most able of opera singers. For Michael, it is extraordinary.
Michael is autistic, and has been since birth. When Michael was a year old, he would wake during the night screaming. The only way his parents could soothe him was to bring him into their bed, where he would fall asleep on Kathleen's chest. That bonding and unconditional love from his mother and dad, Arnold, laid the groundwork for Michael's venture into the world of music.
After a discouraging start with programs for autistic children, the Valcours saw a television documentary about Barry and Susie Kayfman and their autistic son, who was earning A's in school and planning to go to college. The Valcours wrote to the Kaufmans, who encouraged the Valcours to try to enter Michael's world rather than continually coaxing him into theirs.
"You enter into their world and present our world to them," Kathleen said. "And you appreciate their world."
When Michael would make sounds, jump on the bed or swing, Kathleen and Arnold would do the same. Michael would respond.
"We had done a lot of things like jumping on the bed," she said. "And my husband put a swing on the oak tree in our back yard and did a lot of swinging with Michael."
When Kathleen called Michael, it was as if he couldn't even hear her. "But if I sang the words," 'Michael, come here,' he would come, she said.
The Valcours continued to follow the Kaugmans' method as they wound their way through the red tape of county school requirements, and sought financial aid from various agencies to help with the costs of assistance in the classroom. As with any parent, the Valcours were concerned about where Michael would be headed as he grew into adulthood. They knew he seemed to enjoy music, and had even provided violin lessons and trumpet lessons when Michael expressed an interest in playing the instruments. When Michael was 12, Kathleen noticed he would often pretend to be playing the guitar around the house. She and Arnold bought him a guitar.
It was a little later that Michael attended Sir Francis Drake High School, where he was able to take choir and learned the song "Lean on Me." That's when Kathleen and Arnold realized that Michael was gifted in music.
"He learned 'Lean on Me' on the guitar and was able to figure out the chords and everything by himself," she said. Michael's older sister, Pagette, began to bring home tapes of Christian rock music and Michael enjoyed learning the music and the songs. When he was 22, Michael enrolled in the music department at the Kentfield campus of the College of Marin, where he met Dr. Stan Kraczek, head of the music department. Michael enrolled in the choral class, but soon felt he wanted to develop the proper resonance in his voice. In order to take a voice class, Michael would need to complete a pre-requistie in music theory, a difficult class.
He needed a facilitator to attend the class with him. Michael had attended the day program of Casa Allegra Community Services, an agency that provides services to the disabled, where he met Oliver Fraenkle. Fraenkle was able to attend the class with Michael and help him pass the pre-requisite for the voice class.
"I was amazed," Kathleen said. "They talked about things in music, like triads and what have you. It looked so difficult to me and he managed to get through it with Oliver. A test that might take 25 minutes might take Michael two-and-a-half hours because his mind might wander."
Fraenkle continued to help Michael through the voice class of Dr. Martin Frick, who, along with Fraenkle, began training Michael's voice. Only months later, Fraenkle moved out of the area and Frick passed away.
"We were sort of at a loss for a while and then Donna Dutton appeared," Kathleen said.
Dutton had taught choral music for many years in Southern California and was well known in the Marin music community. She had been involved with the College of Marin music program and had seen and heard Michael in a choral class.
"Michael has quite a bit of talent and I thought it would be very interesting to work with him," Dutton said. "So I let the Diabled Students Program know that I would be available for music students."
Dutton was well acquainted with the issues of disabled students; her daughter has Down syndrome and attends College of Marin.
Dutton was assigned to work with Michael an hour before each class.
"The voice teacher, Linda Noble, assigns songs to be learned and exercises to do," Dutton said. "I teach him the songs he is expected to be able to sing."
Michael learns vocal techniques from Dutton, following the guidelines that Noble gives her students. Over the years she has learned how Michael learns best. He is making progress by leaps and bounds, she says.
"He has an extraordinary ability. When it comes to singing, it's his ability that stands out and his disability is hardly there," she said. "He also comes with parents who have worked very caringly and lovingly with him to bring him into the world. They've never given up on him in any way. When he showed an interest in singing, they supported him tremendously."
Michael developed a passion for music and performed in two COM opera productions last year. The director suggested that his mother videotape the rehearsals so that Michael could watch them at home for additional practice. After setting up the video, Michael retrieved a large mirror which he placed strategically across from the television screen.
"He said that if he just watched the television screen he would be learning the steps backwards," Kathleen said.
Voice instructor Linda Noble has taught Michael over the past five years and is moved by the progress he has made.
"The wonderful thing about working with Michael is his attention is very focused on specific things - if you give him a specific instruction he will do that," she said. "And the support he gets at home - and to see him put it all together has been wonderful."
A year or two ago, Michael was in another voice class of Noble's. He had been making steady progress, but it was still a big challenge for him. His assignment was to learn a song and perform it in front of the class. His mother and others were present in the class that day. When Michael completed the song, something memorable happened. Noble has never forgotten.
"Michael knew that he had nailed it. He walked back to his seat with a llittle half-smile on his face. We were moved to tears because as an autistic person, he would not necessarily be able to access his emotions as readily as you or I. To see him feel this pride in what he had done had moved us," she said. "And it's probably one of the highlights of my teaching career - in that moment."
Novato resident Michael Valcour will perform in his first solo recital on Sunday, Sept. 9 at 4 P.M., College of Marin, Kentfield campus at Sir Francis Drake Boulevard and Laurel Avenue, Fine Arts Building, Lefort Recital Hall, Room 72. A baritone, Michael will perform classical works by Schumann, Handel Marcello, and others. He will also perform contemporary pieces and his own work, "It's a stregth of Courage Light." A reception will follow the performance.
The newsletter of Disabled Students Programs and Services, College of Marin
Winter 2001-2002, Volume 5, Issue 2
With his strong, vibrant baritone, Michael's performance would have been impressive regardless of the circumstances. What made it astonishing, however, is the fact that Michael has been autistic since birth and has attended special education classes most of his life.
When Michael came to College of Marin several years ago, he discovered that with help from Disabled Students Programs and Services (DSPS) and Casa Allegra Community Services, he could succeed in credit classes. His love of music and desire to be an entertainer soon led him to the Music Department.
Michael's earnestness and perserverance won him many supporters among the Music Department faculty and staff, beginning with Dr. Stan Kraczek, in whose College Chorus Michael made his College of Marin debut. He was soon "promoted" to the late Martin Frick's prestigious Chamber Singers, but he was temporarily stymied in his desire to take more music classes; they all required that he first pass a Music Fundamentals class.
The written tests in Music Fundamentals require concentration and focusing, tasks that are difficult for people with autism. With tutors from DSPS and dogged persistance, however, Michael succeeded in opening every door.
It has been Donna Dutton, his tutor, mentor and coach, who has been the biggest help. Donna, whose developmentally delayed daughter, Dusty, is also a College of Marin student, has the musical knowledge, as well as the patience and motivation, to help Michael reach his potential.
Michael , says his mother Kathy, was also "blessed to fall into the hands of Linda Noble," a College of Marin voice teacher. Michael has also sung in two college opera productions with instructor Paul Smith.
"He just keeps growing," says Kathy Valcour. We are amazed at what he has done."
Michael now volunteers in local special education classes, playing guitar, singing children's songs and leading student participation. He has written three songs of his own, and has performed at several parties and events of Casa Allegra, Special Olympics and Upper Brookside School. There are plans to start work on a CD.
"Every few months," says Michael's father, Arnold, "he reaches a new plateau."
Novato Advance, May 17, 1989
Two Novatoans are among Marin's 19989 Volunteers of the Year. George Messera was honored for his volunteer service with Marin Adult Day Health Services, while 16-year old Mike Valcour was recognized for his efforts as a volunteer with Exodus. They [and five others] were honored for their outstanding contributions to the community at a reception held at the Clarion Hotel, sponsored by the Volunteer Center of Marin.
Valcour's volunteer contributions to Exodus are extraordinary because he, himself, is autistic and expressed all symptoms of the syndrome as a young child. He understands the behavioral problems of the children at Exodus and assists senior staff with daily activities, Saturday outings at Hallercek Creek and camping trips.
According to Exodus manager Yvonne Russ, "Michael does his volunteer work because he cares. to find this quality in a young person who is only 16-years-old is extraordinary in itself. To find it in a young person who is also autistic is virtually a miracle."
Bonds of autism can't contain one boy's compassion
Marin Independent Journal
April 24, 1989
by Beth Ashley
When Mike Valcour was honored earlier this month as one of Marin's six Volunteers of the Year, he waved his prize in triumph. "I'm a winner," he said, and the crowd applauded. Mike Valcour is autistic.
His honor came for his work with autistic children at the Exodus residence in Novato. "It is rare for any 16-year-old to have empathy for other people," says Exodus director Polly Yarnell, who nominated him. "To find it in a 16-year-old with autism is virtually a miracle."
"He's one of the most compassionate kids you've ever met," says his teacher, Joan Turtle.
When Mike was a baby, he seemed doomed for life to the dark prison of autism - unable to relate to others, behaving ritualistically, compulsively, and beyond the reach of normal human interchange.
At 16 he has stepped, if only a pace or two, outside his prison. He has made friends, he is developing his artistic gifts, "he is a contributor," says his mother, Kathy Valcoour.
"That he functions so well is due to the extraordinary efforts of his parents," says Yarnell.
Kathy and Arnold Valcour of Novato, owners of Corn Popper shops at Northgate and Ghirardelli Square, were thrilled when their son was born.
But by the time he was 1, he began waking in the night, screaming. "We walked him and walked him and walked him," says Arnold. "He'd fall asleep on my chest in our bed." The bonding from those vigils "might have made the difference" that allowed them physical closeness - unusual with autistic children - and permission to share in his world," says his mother.
Mike spent two years at Marin Child Development Center but at age 5 was scheduled to enter the county school system. "We went to look at the autistic class at Henry Hall School in Corte Madera," says Kathy. "We were appalled. They believed in behavior modification, punishment for bad behavior. They had little isolation booths. It seemed cold and unfeeling."
With school authorities, Kathy and Arnold devised an Individual Education Plan that kept Mike at MCDC while they looked for solutions. Mike's behavior was becoming more bizarre. "When he was frustrated, he'd bite people." By the time he was 6, he was no longer invited to birthday parties.
The Valcours were "praying to God for an answer" when they saw a television show about Barry and Susie Kaufman and their autistic child Raun, who was then getting straight As and preparing for college. "It was the only hopeful thing we'd ever seen," says Kathy.
The show, and correspondence with the Kaufmans, gave them a pattern to follow: instead of trying to coax Michael out of his world, they entered into it, creating a bridge into theirs. "When he went 'ah-dee-dah, ah-dee-dah,' we would join in," says Arnold. "When he bounced up and down, we bounced with him. We established a bond. We accepted him for what he was."
Mike dealt with his world in a physical way: he was frightened of the car wash, so he built a car wash on his lawn with brooms and a hose, and put himself through it. "He was always building roller coasters in the living rooom," says his father. "He built contraptions you knew wouldn't work, but they worked."
The parents wrestled with the red tape of county school requirements and with financial applications to hire educatioinal aides to work with Mike. They got help from the Babcock Fund, Easter Seals, the Golden Gate Regional Center (an agency for the developmentally disabled).
Mike went one year at Kaleidoscope, a private school in Novato, where he had intense one-on-one attention and formed relationships with children his age. The next year he moved into a special classroom in the Novato School District. With supplementary activities - soccer, Boy Scouts, the routine at home - he continued to progress.
Then Arnold was laid off from his job at Fireman's Fund. Looking for a new way to make a living, the Valcours went into the popcorn business, which cut into their time with Mike.
When Mike was old enough for junior high, they enrolled him in the Child Center in Kentfield. "I hated having him leave Novato, where he had friends," says his mother, so she hunted for social alternatives.
He joined a youth group at Marin Christian Church and a teen club at Easter Seals. A student from Marin Catholic worked with him as a volunteer. Then Kathy took him to Exodus, as a place where he might make new friends.
Here,Yarnell discovered his gift for helping children.
When Kathy talked to Yarnell, Mike began playing with the children. Yarnell watched out of the corner of her eye.
A staff member told one of the children to "throw the ball back.," and the child, Arsi, promptly threw the ball backwards over his head. The staff person thought Arsi was being disobedient. Mike said, "Don't say 'throw the ball back,' say 'throw the ball to me.'" And Arsi did.
He knew better than we did what the words meant to that child," says Yarnell.
She suggested that Mike join Exodus as a junior staff member, "not as a client but as a helper."
Mike has worked at Exodus for two years, spending each Monday afternoon at the Novato facility tending the kids, accompanying them horseback riding each Saturday.
"I stop these kids from running around," Mike says, struggling with the words. "Each of the staff commands me to have them in each area."
("He is autiscally compulsive," Yarnell says. "When he is told they have to stay with the group, he sees to it that they do.")
"Good job , Nick," Mike calls to one of the boys. "Come here and play."
Kathy watches, pride and concern struggling on her face.
Her principal wish for Mike now is the chance to socialize with other kids - normal kids - his own age. "We could use about four Tom Cruises," she says, referring to the movie, "Rain Man," in which the autistic Dustin Hoffman is taken under the loving wing of his brother, Tom Cruise.
(Yes, they took him to see "Rain Man," says Kathy, but she's not sure how much he got out of it. "He had an assignment to read five pages of 'Huckleberry Finn' the next day. He sat through the movie with the book in front of his face.")
Arnold and Kathy don't know what Mike's future will be. He reads at a third grade level. But Kathy says he loves music and is extraordinary at art, which Turtle confirms. ("He draws in incredible detail. His dinasaurs are spectacular.") Kathy wishes there were nearby college classes for people like Mike, as there are on the East Coast.
"Maybe he could work in a place like Exodus," says his teacher Turtle." "He's wonderful with other kids. He's the most respected kid in our class."
Wizard of Oz - SENSE Theatre
Casa Allegra Community Services
25th Anniversary Party
California State Capitol
Easter Seals recognition
Kennedy Center, Vanderbilt University,
SENSE Theatre at the MIND Institute,
SENSE Theatre at the MIND Institute,