Grantee Spotlight: Unified Theater

via Unified Theater

If you read our post “Why the Arts and Humanities are Vital to the Future and Culture of America,” you’ve probably seen some of these stats before.

But here’s a quick recap.

Did you know that 67% of Americans believe that “the arts unify our communities regardless of age, race, and ethnicity” and 62% of Americans believe that the arts help them understand other cultures better? And, did you know that 89% of Americans believe that arts are included in a well-rounded K-12 education? And students with 4 years of arts or music in high school average 100 points better on the verbal and math portions of their SAT’s?

Whether you’re familiar with these numbers or not, they highlight a bigger picture that our friends over at Unified Theater live and breathe.

Unified Theater dissolves typical barriers between youth through school based performing arts programming. They bring together young people with and without disabilities, of all backgrounds, as equals to put on a production. The production is entirely organized, written, and directed by the students themselves. At Unified Theater, the concept is simple: let teens lead, let creativity rule, and put the “Spotlight on Ability.”

Since 2002, Unified Theater has worked with nearly 100 schools in 7 states, served nearly 12,000 students with and without disabilities, and performed for nearly 20,000 audience members. But their mission expands past experiences onstage.

“As much as we love watching our schools’ Unified Theater productions (and we do!), ultimately we are working to make that performance a starting point. Once the lights come down and the applause fades away, we want our teachers and students to recognize that the inclusion of students of all abilities in school and in their larger community is not only valuable but is necessary and benefits everyone. We want our students to become advocates and ambassadors of inclusion for their entire lives,” explained Unified Theater’s Director of Programs, Jen McCool.

via Unified Theater

Unified Theater began with Kelsey and Micaela: two cousins born three months apart and united by love for music, roller coasters, beachside picnics and long drives, rather than divided by the fact that Kelsey was born with disabilities that limited her abilities to walk and talk. Unified Theater is rooted in what Kelsey taught Micaela, and the world: to see ability first, to savor each moment of joy and the people who bring them, and to never take life too seriously. Influenced by Kelsey, a love of music and theater, and a frustration of limited music and theater opportunities for people like Kelsey, Micaela founded Unified Theater at Conard High School in West Hartford at age 15.

Today, a powerful creative movement led by youth to achieve full inclusion, Unified Theater is still focused on their founding principles. Driven by youth for youth, advocates across the country are building and leading programs in their own schools, dedicated to shining a spotlight on ability.

“Entire school districts in Greater Hartford have embraced Unified Theater and our model of inclusion for students with and without disabilities and I think we can really see this culture of inclusion ripple through schools and our larger community. Not only are students with and without disabilities performing together, they’re becoming friends, they’re supporting each other during the school day, they are advocating for each other and parents, siblings, teachers, school administrators all see the positive benefits of these friendships,” said McCool. “Theater is a naturally collaborative endeavor – you’re all up on that stage together, right? Essentially, Unified Theater students of all abilities are using theater to learn teamwork and collaboration and creativity together and then transferring those skills to their lives outside of Unified Theater and outside of school. And they’re doing it all while being inclusive of everyone’s different abilities.”

McCool joined the Unified Theater team in 2014 with a background in theater education and community engagement. Growing up with a mother who was a special education teacher provided McCool with a very inclusive mindset, and also, allowed her to fall in love with Unified Theater’s core mission and values.  “My entire career has essentially been driven by the belief that the arts and theater, specifically, strengthen and enrich communities and Unified Theater is the perfect example of how schools and entire towns benefit from the arts.”

As the Director of Programs, Jen McCool works with Unified Theater to create more inclusive communities through student leadership and the performing arts.

“Every Unified Theater school really runs their own Unified Theater program, with training, guidance and support provided by Unified Theater, Inc. A school needs a teacher or staff member (or two) from their faculty to serve as the advisor for the program and they need 5-7 students to take on the roles of student leaders. These leaders and advisors attend a Unified Theater training and our staff teaches them all the nuts and bolts of how to run Unified Theater, how to be inclusive, and how to write their own show. Any interested school or teacher or student can contact me, Jen McCool, via email at or at 860-559-3810!”

The Greater Hartford Arts Council, with Unified Theater and our other grantees work to support a community united by art. Greater Hartford is home to hundreds of arts, cultural, and heritage organizations that help make us a strong community – turning strangers into neighbors, celebrating our diversity, revitalizing neighborhoods and uniting us all.

“We love Hartford and this amazingly rich arts community and we are trying to do our small part to cultivate the next generation of arts patrons, artists and supporters who will be working to make the arts and Hartford even more inclusive!” McCool added.

Click here for more information on the Unified Theater approach and how to become a Spotlight School.

Join our United Arts Campaign to support arts & cultural organizations like Unified Theater and build a stronger and more vibrant community in Greater Hartford!