Out of the Shadows invites people with disabilities to act
Wendy Carroll's son inspired her to share theater experience with him and others.
One night during an audition for a play, actress Wendy Carroll realized her son, Toby, who had attended her rehearsals in Coeur d'Alene and Spokane theaters, might want to act. Toby has several disabilities.
He brings actors water at rehearsals and helps tidy the theater lobbies. The theater community embraces him, she said.
In April 2016, she created Out of the Shadows Theater. Productions feature actors with disabilities accompanied by shadow actors who support the actors at rehearsals and during productions.
Wendy called on friends and colleagues in the theater community. They began planning their first production, "Beauty and the Beast Jr." The play ran two productions one weekend in November 2016.
Productions have been in November since then: "Fiddler on the Roof Jr." in 2017 and "Mary Poppins Jr." in 2018.
"We don't ask what the issues are with our actors," Wendy said.
Some are autistic or blind. Others have Down Syndrome, cerebral palsy, developmental disabilities or are in stroke recovery.
The actors and shadow actors range from 10 to 63 years old—most are 20 to 30. Shadow actors wear dark clothing and help actors learn the lines. They have the script on stage and make sure actors move to the correct places. Actors and shadows often become friends.
"In theater, the goal is to please the audience. In our theater, it's not about the audience. It's about the actors," Wendy said. "We seek to give actors the opportunity to be on stage. If the audience is pleased, that's a bonus."
The audience may know they are seeing miracles, but Wendy said they don't see the half of it.
Actors are dealing with many new experiences—putting on make-up, putting on a microphone or wearing annoying fabrics.
To see them is to realize how hard they work and how supportive everyone around them is.
"Our actors like the theater and the opportunity," she said. "They like that people are staring at them for their abilities, not their disabilities.
"We do what the actors need to feel comfortable," Wendy said. "While we bend rules, we hold them to standards. We make clear it's a commitment. That means giving their word they will stick with it."
Wendy cited examples of what it has meant to some actors:
• One girl with Down Syndrome had to bring her doll on stage. She needed to wear sound suppressors because of a sensitivity to noise. On opening night, she kept the doll but gave up the sound suppressors.
• A boy had cerebral palsy and autism. His grandmother said when he is acting he no longer has autism because his character doesn't have it. He has gone on to be cast in community theater productions with Lake City Playhouse and Aspire Theater.
• In "Beauty and the Beast Jr.," wheelchairs were used as part of the wolves' costumes.
• A shy young girl in "Beauty" struggled with her single line: "Boo!" By her third production she delighted audiences with her brilliant portrayal of Mary Poppins' young charge Jane Banks, complete with English accent! She has become outgoing and verbal.
• A young woman became a member of the junior board of directors at Liberty Lake Community Theater and has been cast in several productions and a Shakespearean play. She also has begun to write for theater.
"When our actors go off on a line, the audience is patient and supportive," Wendy said.
Therapists find theater participation is therapeutic, particularly for people with autism, she said. They see that actors retain the benefits—increased eye contact and picking up on body language and social cues.
"I knew what it would mean to my son and his friends," she said. "It surprised me how it opened the eyes of production people.
"As we came to the end of "Beauty and the Beast Jr.," I wondered how to convince the production crew and shadow actors to assist again the next year. They came to me!"
Many volunteers with theater experience strive for perfection. They soon learn that Out of the Shadows' goal is for actors to do their best. Most return production after production.
A seasoned TV, film and stage actor told Wendy after seeing the show in 2016, "This is the most important theater I've ever seen. I have to work on the next show."
The creative director of Spokane Civic Theater gave Out of the Shadows access to some Mary Poppins costumes. After seeing the show, he said, "I get it. I want to be involved."
Every year, theater professionals and inexperienced folks from the community donate time and talent from September into November. This year the costume designer just finished Coeur d'Alene's Summer Theater's 2019 season. The set and lighting designer is returning.
The choreographer adapts dances to include actors who require walkers and wheelchairs.
The deaf community values use of American Sign Language interpreters at select performances.
Born in Saskatchewan, Wendy left to study journalism in Calgary. After five years in Vancouver, B.C., she went to Los Angeles and found work at Disney studios in marketing. Then she produced animated and live action shorts on social issues for schools and libraries. After 15 years, she moved in 1994 to Arizona, and taught screenwriting in Scottsdale Community College's film and TV department.
Having performed in theater in Vancouver, she left film to return to theater, moving to Nashville. She did some theater, but raising a son with special needs alone, she put it on the back burner.
In 2006 in Coeur d'Alene, she became involved with the Lake City Playhouse. Toby was 16 and came to rehearsals with her. She also performed at Spokane Civic Theater and Interplayers.
Wendy wants people to create Out of the Shadows theaters in their communities. She began with no money. The community stepped up. "We rely on donations, grants and volunteers," she said.
In 2018, Out of the Shadows became a nonprofit, called Celebrate Inc. Beyond theater, Out of the Shadows wants to introduce other fine arts to individuals with disabilities, using professional tools and instruction. They seek a location and artists willing to donate their time.
Currently, Out of the Shadows is preparing the November 2019 production of "Music Man Jr." It will run two weekends, Nov. 1 to 3, and 8 to 10.
The shows they have produced have been sold out. They are already booked for 2020 and 2021.
"The experience is life-changing and inspiring not only for the actors, but also for the shadow actors, production team, back stage crew and audience," Wendy said.
For information, call 208-818-0953 or visit outoftheshadowstheater.com.
Copyright@ The Fig Tree, September, 2019