A typical school day for students today can be challenging – filled with surprise quizzes, homework, testing, extracurricular activities, and the dreaded standardized tests. For the millions of students with learning disabilities, these challenges are magnified.
Inspired by these challenges, two Dalton High School students are bringing these issues to the stage. The original musical “Click,” premieres at Dalton Little Theatre on Friday, Jan. 12 with another performance on Saturday, Jan. 13. Tickets can be purchased at https://www.daltonlittletheatre.com.
The learning disabilities faced by those in the story are characters called “Clicks.” The Clicks antagonize the adolescents who struggle to maintain their friendships and overcome labels used in special education to define learning disabilities. You will meet Jane, Jonathan, and Scott who describe how their IEPs (Individualized Education Plans) help and hinder them at this stage of their lives. All three characters work to discover their identities as they search for balance between acceptance and growth.
Juniors Ellis Stephens, who wrote the book, and Lilli Sharp, who wrote the music and lyrics, provide a behind-the-scenes look into the lives of young people living with learning disabilities. Their words and music put a spotlight on how young people must navigate social and academic issues that arise from learning disabilities.
Diagnosed with dyslexia and dysgraphia in the second grade, Stephens knows these challenges firsthand.
“My parents told me, eventually it would just click,” Stephens said. “That’s where I got the name for the musical. There were times when I felt pretty defeated in the classroom. I’m hoping that teachers and educators will come to see the show, and students too."
In reflecting on the upcoming premiere of their original musical, Stephens shares his hope for the production, stating, "I hope it does a good job of representing some of the struggles students are going through in the classroom. I think a lot of them will be able to relate.”
Dyslexia primarily affects a person’s ability to read, spell, and write and involves difficulties with the phonological processing of language. Dysgraphia affects writing abilities, including struggles with handwriting, spelling, and putting thoughts on paper, despite having the desire to write.
“Not a lot of people know about learning disabilities,” said Sharp. “I certainly didn’t before Ellis told me about them. We wrote the musical to tell that story, the story that our imperfections are part of who we are, but we can never let them be all we are.”
“It’s been a long process for the past two-and-half years and we’re excited to see it come to life on stage," said Sharp. "We hope teachers and students come to see it in hopes that they can identify with the story.”
In elementary school, Stephens turned to stop-motion videos as a way to complete assignments. When he became interested in acting, he used his time memorizing scripts to improve his reading. He continued to lean on the arts through middle school and high school and is now an accomplished actor and filmmaker.
“I’ve always used the arts to help deal with my learning disabilities,” said Stephens. “It just made sense to share this on stage.”
“Click” was a team effort for Stephens and Sharp. As luck would have it, Stephens was working on the story at the same time Sharp was preparing some original music.
“She asked if I could listen to some original music she was writing, and that’s when I told her about what I was writing,” said Stephens, who attended the Governor’s Honors Program for theatre this past summer at Georgia Southern University. “We started spending some time on the weekends, working on the lyrics and developing the story and it just kind of grew from there.”
As freshmen, Stephens and Sharp held a workshop performance of “Click,” and have been working to bring it to the stage since.
“I wrote my first song for ‘Click,’ without even reading the script,” Sharp said. “I eventually read it and got more invested in the project, but didn’t consider myself a true partner with Ellis at first. I told him that this was his show and that I just wrote some music, but he said, ‘You’re in this.’ We learned that we not only worked well together, but we both felt the need to tell this story.”
According to Sharp, the music in “Click,” is different than most musicals.
“The tunes are catchy, but the lyrics matter most,” she said. “The music has to be raw and intimate, just like the story we’re trying to tell.”
Alana Sane directs the musical.
“As a teacher, you never stop learning,” Sane said. “The story that Ellis and Lilli tell us is about a topic that is not new to me, but seeing it through the eyes of the students, the struggles and even the perception of teachers, it really has taught me a lot. There is a lot of truth in the script and in the music and the ability of these young adults to capture that on the stage amazes me."
“So many hours of work went into the creation of these characters and the telling of their story. That kind of creative process is agonizing for adults, and yet these two students, at the age of 14, have withstood that pressure. What we have as a result is a beautiful diamond forged by the creative process of the human condition from a unique perspective of youth.”
Stephens has excelled as an actor and filmmaker in recent years, being named Region Actor of the Year (2022) and All-Star Cast (2023) for his performances in Dalton High’s productions of “Something Rotten!” and “Pippin.” His short films “Keyz,” “Reflections” and “Thank You Five” have been selected into the Georgia Thescon Film Festival in 2021, 2022 and 2023.
“Ellis is one of the most naturally talented students I have ever encountered, said Wes Phinney, the Dalton High drama teacher and Dalton High Fine Arts Academy Coordinator. “He has a great love of and curiosity about the theatre and is hungry to read and learn and experience all that he can, which makes him a lot of fun to have in class.”
Sharp is in the International Baccalaureate program and participates in the Dalton High drama program, appearing recently in “Pippin,” “The Adams Family,” and “Something Rotten!” She has also plays the clarinet in the DHS Wind Ensemble band and dances at the Creative Arts Guild.
“Lilli is one of the most organized and well-disciplined students I’ve ever met," said Phinney. “She’s very talented, but also works very hard to refine and improve her talents. She’s an absolute joy to have in class.”