The Jellybean Conspiracy Festival

Jellybean Festival Logo

A continuance of the Jellybean Conspiracy Show, the speech festival is a unique model for student and community involvement featuring peer coaches, relationship-building, and celebrating diversity through expression, displays of talent and overwhelming acceptance.

THE JELLYBEAN JOURNEY (2015)

The Jellybean Conspiracy Project was founded in 2001 by Dr. Howard Martin with the mission to bring people together by sponsoring theatre shows that share a life-changing secret:

Everyone's life is important and each person has the potential to make a unique contribution to the world.

Here is a bit about how the conspiracy has grown into a full-blown movement! Mexico High School speech and theatre instructor Sara Given knew it was meant to be. "My theatre teacher, Joel Short, had directed the piece before and had told me several times that this was a piece he knew I would direct some day," she remembered. "He told me that when the time was right, I would know." Two years ago the time was right, and Given chose to use "The Jellybean Conspiracy" as the reader's theatre submission for the district competition. What started as a simple performance has now become a purpose, both for her students, herself and her career.

The Conspiracy Begins

"The Jellybean Conspiracy" is a two-part play meant for actors both with and without disabilities. It tells the stories of several people with atypical developments, with the point being that everyone is special, beautiful and valuable. According to www.jellybeanconspiracy.org, "The Jellybean Secret is this: everyone's life is important." Given has been working with students of different levels of ability since her first year of teaching and was excited to give them an opportunity to express themselves on stage.

"The best part is watching," Given smiled. "Watching the joy in the performers, the pride in the peer coaches and the amazement and appreciation in the audience." But Given, by nature as a teacher, an actress and a former dancer, is not one to just stand by and watch. She took the piece to contest where it did well, but didn't do as well as she had hoped. After returning from contest, Given wasn't ready to give up her Jellybeans. "I've worked with students of all levels of ability since my first year of teaching," she recalled. Given would go into the then "self-contained" class and visit. "I found those students to be so full of love and energy." It was that openness and that desire to connect that led her to the Jellybean Conspiracy script. "The fact that there is a whole acting program out there specifically written for students with atypical developments... I just couldn't let go."

Given's classroom had always been an open forum and open to anyone. The self-contained classroom transitioned into a life skills classroom and still they came, to express themselves, to help Given build sets, paint set and to become part of the casts of the shows she produced. But it wasn't enough, still. Given needed to make it bigger, not because of ego, but because of purpose.

The Seed Takes Root

Given wanted the community to see what could be done. She wanted to showcase the talents of the differently-abled students. She decided she would host a public production of The Jellybean Conspiracy for the community. The students involved raised $2,100 for the Special Olympics.

"Afterward, I was invited to attend the Believer's Banquet where I was recognized for our contribution to Special Olympics," Given related. It was a lifechanger. "This had to be the coolest, most inspiring awards banquet I had ever attended." She watched as the athletes accepted their awards, she listened to the acceptance speeches and the speeches that were really all about acceptance. It was there that the door to inspiration sprung wide open. "Why are we not hosting speech contests for students who qualify for special olympics?" Given wondered. "The speakers were fearless; the energy and passion in their speeches was amazing..." So with the help of then-senior Jacob Lauer, a plan was conceived.

Peeking Through

The Jellybean Speech Olympics was born. But there was still work to be done. Given spoke with students, both mainstreamed and atypically developed and put her players in place. The students wanted to use the term "Jellybean" in their festival, but Given insisted that they ask the permission of the owner of the play who had inspired the endeavor. "We wrote a letter to Jellybean Conspiracy Executive Director Gabriella Lucas and told the story of Districts and the near miss at state qualification and the idea for the speech festival. I told her that the students wanted permission to use the jellybean name." She was given the go-ahead. Given was also informed that in attendance for the first-ever Jellybean Olympics would be not only Lucas, but Jellybean Conspiracy founder Dr. Howard Martin and former BBC producer Michael Price who was making a documentary about the organization.

On a sunny, spring day in mid-April, the Jellybeans converged on Mexico High School. And they were impressed with what they saw. From the differently-abled students performing, to the mainstream students coaching and the fans of the performers as well as the spirit of the event, what started as a conspiracy resulted in a celebration of diversity. It was just a week later that Given received an invitation to Kansas City to meet with the executive board of the Jellybean foundation, which she did. In just the past six months, Given has spoken about the program to the Missouri Speech and Theatre conference and to the Missouri Principals' Association. This year she will host the second competition.

Blooming

It makes for a great story, but the real greatness is found in the students who participate. In a society where being different can be the thing that makes for targeting, MHS students have discovered that difference is beauty. "My idea was that each and every competitor needed to have an immediate and positive audience of at least one," said Given. "Therefore, each ‘Jellybean' was going to have a peer coach to support them and help them learn and grow as a performer. I also knew, from personal experience, that my peer coaches would gain a lot from the experience." Coaches practice together, laugh together, work together, and, in the duet activities, perform together with their jellybean.

Senior Sidny Groves is an accomplished actress and dancer, but she counts her experience as a peer coach during the 2014 Jellybean Olympics as the thing that has shaped her. "I don't think there has ever been anything in my life that has made me appreciate differences and challenges like working with Kelsay Hobbs, her Jellybean conspiracy," Groves smiled. "It was the biggest experience of my life in so many ways; it has changed me." Groves wasn't the only one changed by the experience of peer coaching. Former MHS senior Thorne Cheney volunteered to peer coach last year. "He told me he didn't know much about coaching speech and theatre," Given laughed. "I told him that it was more about guiding his partner to personal success." Thorne did just that with his partner and fellow senior, Zach Head, and it had a profound effect on his life. "Thorne has told me that as a result of the experience he is changing his career focus to continue working with the differently abled."

Jellybeans, as Given affectionately calls her differently-abled students, have various categories to choose from if they wish to participate.They choose from six activities: duet pantomime, original duet acting, storytelling, poetry reading, prose reading and original speech. Judges score each competitor with a rating of "good," "better," or "best," and each student receives a bronze, silver, or gold medal based on these ratings. But Given is quick make note of the fact that the competition in and of itself is not the focus. "The most rewarding part of being involved is the joy and the love," Given smiled. "These are students that a lot of people dismiss, but theatre provides a way for all student to express themselves no matter their intellectual, physical or social level or how they view our world."

And as far as Given is concerned, MHS is just the beginning. Given feels a deep connection to her jellybeans and to the potential for acceptance and joy they possess. "They are who they are and they share what they have to share and it is beautiful," Given explained. In the words of one of the founding jellybeans, Zach Head: "When you want to do something, you can do it."