Students of the KIT Inclusive Theater in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan hold an open-air rehearsal | Photo courtesy of Yuliya Melnichenko

Inclusive theater in Kazakhstan breaks down social prejudices

Energy, tenderness, and joy united in the performances, reflecting the atmosphere and aesthetic of our theater. Every time the students danced, I saw a little glint light up their eyes. The energy of that glint grew into a bright flame of passion that spread among the hall that day.

Yuliya Melnichenko
Interview Subject
Yuliya Melnichenko founded Nur-Sultan’s first inclusive theatrical school for teens and young adults, the KIT Inclusive Theater, in 2017.

A young mother, Yuliya had eight years of experience working with people with special needs as part of her contribution to the local public associations prior to establishing the theater, which currently has 26 participants.

In the less than five years of the theater’s existence, Yuliya has organized three performances including the “Dreamers” musical, several cooking sessions, and led regular training that helped her pupils to overcome the fear of society.

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Background Information
According to the KazInform International News Agency, there are 99 inclusive schools in Kazakhstan, but only 15,000 out of 94,000 disabled children have an opportunity to study at those schools.

Although children with disabilities could study in public schools, roughly 80% of facilities are inaccessible for people with special needs.

NUR-SULTAN, Kazakhstan—I was scrolling through a list of disability-inclusive theater programs in Nur-Sultan when I realized that not only were the options quite limited; all of them were for children or young teenagers. “But where do these people go afterward?” I thought.

Finding no answer to my question, I decided to open my own inclusive theatrical school that would help people with special needs socialize and show their abilities.

Social prejudice against those with disabilities

Here, in Kazakhstan, and perhaps in many other places too, when people see someone with a disability, they ask about their diagnosis first and only then ask about their names. It shouldn’t be so.

One of my pupils, Aida, is an Instagram blogger and an aspiring actress, but people usually refer to her as “the girl with Down syndrome.”

The same thing happened with every one of the 26 teens who study in our inclusive school. They’re seen in society as their disability rather than a person who thinks, feels, and dreams like everyone else. 

We decided to break these prejudices down by staging a musical performance, “Dreamers.”

An inclusive showcase of joy, energy and tenderness

We started working on our musical in fall 2019. We hired more than 50 volunteers to help us write songs, choreograph dances, and teach the teens the basic rules of acting. 

I especially loved their dances. The choreographers were able to create pieces that captured the special features of each dancer. I found them so beautiful.

Energy, tenderness, and joy united in the performances, reflecting the atmosphere and aesthetic of our theater. Every time the students danced, I saw a little glint light up their eyes. The energy of that glint grew into a bright flame of passion that spread among the hall that day.

When the spotlights shone on the teens signifying the end of the musical, they grabbed each other’s hands and took their bow for the public. I could barely hold in my tears, and my heart beat loudly in my chest. It felt like many little needles pricked my skin. I was so proud of these children, of my little dreamers.

However, deafening applause interrupted my thoughts. I turned around and saw everyone in the hall standing up from their seats, clapping until the performers hid behind the curtains. 

Yuliya and a performer, Natasha, after the "Dreamers" performance
Yuliya and a performer, Natasha, after the “Dreamers” performance | Photo courtesy of Yuliya Melnichenko

A small step towards big changes

An autograph session after the show
An autograph session after the show | Photo courtesy of Yuliya Melnichenko

As I went to the lobby to praise my dreamers, I couldn’t see them in the crowd of people walking out of the hall. I went through the crowd, hearing a chorus of voices complimenting “these amazing children.” “I want to see this performance again!” exclaimed one woman. I couldn’t help but smile.

My dreamers were at the head of this crowd, many of whom were queuing with pens in their hands and smiles on their faces.

“I always wanted to sign autographs,” whispered Aida. “I might seriously start my career in acting.”

“You will be the greatest actress,” I told her.  I felt like I would burst with pride that my little school had helped give her this moment of confidence and hope.

Zhibek Satenova is a member of Orato’s Spring 2022 Writer’s Workshop & Internship Program.

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Zhibek Satenova is a student at Nazarbayev University pursuing a BA in World Languages, Literature, and Culture. She appreciates writing in all shapes and forms.