This summer, nearly 20 young people with and without disabilities are working with theatre and education professionals on a community drama production that proves a little “heart” can make a big difference.

The 19 middle and high schoolers come from across Central Florida, and they are participants in Shakespeare With Heart, a collaboration among the University of Central Florida, UCP of Central Florida and the Orlando Shakespeare Theater in Partnership with UCF.

The students have spent the past two weeks learning lines, practicing movements and working together to master “Much Ado About Nothing,” which they will perform in Shakespeare’s original Elizabethan style at 7 p.m. Friday, July 20, at the Orlando Shakespeare Theater, 812 E. Rollins St.

“The camp is only half a day, so it’s amazing to see the transformations that take place and the friendships that develop,” said Ellie Hauser, the coordinator for UCP. “It’s exciting for the students to be able to perform for their families and friends. The energy in the room during the final performance is electrifying.”

Shakespeare With Heart is the brainchild of Rebecca Hines, an associate professor in UCF’s College of Education. She started a similar program at Seabreeze High School in Daytona Beach several years ago to provide inclusive theatre opportunities to teens with and without disabilities.

Hines was approached in 2006 by Ilene Wilkins, president and CEO of UCP of Central Florida, to create a similar camp for UCP that would provide meaningful opportunities for young people, encouraging them to leave their comfort zones and embrace a stage beyond their own boundaries.

According to Hines, the results have been outstanding. Many campers return to the program year after year, and the performances are often held for standing-room-only audiences.

“It’s wonderful to see how the general education students support the kids with special needs,” said Hauser. “They support and motivate each other.”

For Shakespeare With Heart, the students work with four instructors as well as volunteers to bring the production to life on a grand scale. This summer’s instructors are Anne Hering and Morgan Russell, with support from stage manager Tiffany Lyn Meadows and choreographer Lisa Curtis.

Mornings begin with a “check-in,” where the actors describe how they’re feeling. Then they go into an energy warm-up before starting the day’s rehearsal. Each day ends with closure, or a check-out that focuses on how the students are feeling or what they learned that day.

“We wanted to create something that didn’t count on having a bunch of experts on disability around,” Hines said. “Our goal was to have the community take it on, and that’s what happened.”

In fact, Shakespeare With Heart has been so widely accepted that its led to an offshoot called Playing With Heart.

Playing With Heart is inclusive and focuses on the fundamentals of drama. Campers focus on techniques and basic acting skills and present what they’ve learned in individualized performances or a showcase of scenes at the end of the week.

The weeklong camp starts July 30.

Click here to learn more about the camps.