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'She leaves a hole in our cast'

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Director Kaysie Manion, standing near center, leads a rehearsal of Beauty and the Beast before the production Sunday at the Stewartville Performing Arts Center. Performer Caitlyn Claeys, not pictured, had to drop out following a brain tumor diagnosis. $2,000 was raised in a fundraiser on her behalf Thursday.
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STEWARTVILLE — The Stewartville High School production of "Beauty and the Beast" had just about everything: A talented cast and crew, a spot-on set and a full house for all three of its weekend performances.

But something — or rather, someone — was missing.

"She leaves a hole in our cast," said Kaysie Manion, director of the musical.

"She" is Kaitlyn Claeys, a senior this year at SHS who was cast as Babette after auditions this fall, just weeks after being diagnosed with a brain tumor.

Claeys made it to a few rehearsals, Manion said, "hoping her recovery would be quick."

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Instead, she was scheduled for surgery, "and Kaitlyn knew it wasn't maybe going to be the best idea" to be involved in anything except her own recovery.

The 17-year-old "has always been heavily involved in theater," Manion said Sunday, shortly before the closing performance of the production made famous by a 1991 Disney film, "so this was kind of a blow, especially in her senior year."

Claeys reluctantly stepped down; her cousin, Cecelia Gray, then stepped into the role of Babette. The entire case and crew, Gray said, consider Claeys "an inspiration" and have come together to support her.

"It's sort of unspoken," Gray said, "but everyone knows that we're doing this for her. She's taught us that you really never know when you'll be on stage for the last time."

In Claeys' case, it was late spring. She had a seizure during a rehearsal for the high school play, but it was chalked up to exhaustion, said her aunt, Diane Gray.

"She'd been in the school play, in the (Stewartville) Community Theater, and they just figured she was overtired," Gray said.

Then, a week after her mother's wedding in July, Claeys had another seizure. This time, she was on the campus of Mayo Clinic, participating in a Mayo mentoring program. Tests revealed a brain tumor.

Surgery performed Oct. 20 removed about 95 percent of the tumor, Gray said, but the seizures continue.

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The family is hopeful Claeys will be a candidate for proton beam therapy at Mayo. The pencil-beam technology has served mostly pediatric cancer patients, as the targeted radiation reduces or eliminates side effects in developing organs.

Claeys, who continues to recover at home from the surgery, is keeping up with schoolwork via tutors and Skype, Gray said, and is filling out college applications.

"She's very positive," Gray said. "She's surrounded by positive energy — but she's always been their immediate ball of fire — so (these students) feel like they're helping. All the support has really lifted her spirits."

The support includes a donation from her castmates, who opened Thursday evening's dress rehearsal to the public. Admission was free, but goodwill donations were accepted. The performance raised more than $2,000 for Claeys, who was able to attend.

"She loved the show," said Cecilia Gray. Seeing their peer face a serious medical condition "is kind of inspirational, actually. We want to come together to support her; it's really a sense of community."

Manion, who last year directed Claeys as Mother Superior in "The Sound of Music," said Stewartville is "blessed with so many talented kids, and they're such a core group of students."

More than 70 students auditioned for 56 roles; at least 80 students in grades 3 through 12 are involved in this production.

"It's always hard to lose one of your seniors, someone who's been a staple" in theater, Manion said. "She's always so bubbly, so they've really felt that (loss). It reminds them that sometimes bad things happen to people.

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"They know that now because they know someone who's been sick."

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Kaysie Manion

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