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Inclusive theater program gives everyone the stage

Caitlin Whyte

The parking lot off Hinchey Road is unassuming at dusk. I pull in and wonder if I’m in the right place. I do that thing where you follow other cars and just hope they’re going to the same location. When I drive past a glass door, pouring light into the dark parking lot, I assume this has to be the place.

It’s bright inside as dozens start to enter the practice space, and it’s loud as volunteers and parents and actors greet and hug each other ahead of rehearsal.  Artists Unlimited is putting on its 18th show this year: The Little Mermaid, integrating actors with and without disabilities in each of its productions.

I’m here on a Monday. Mondays are music night thats what Sarah Staebell tells me. She’s a music teacher at Brighton High School and the music director for the play. She got involved because she wanted something she could do with her little brother who has a disability. He’s in the cast.

“I feel really fortunate that we can give people that outlet, right, who might not have it otherwise, so I think that’s a really special thing. And if you come to one of those shows or even hear at rehearsal today, you’ve got to see like this energy, is like nothing else. Our cast members give a performance that is 110 percent every second, and it’s just so, so rewarding, on both sides I think.”

Practices for this 72-person cast of “The Little Mermaid” have been going on since August. I’m settling in watch rehearsal when Daijon Moon pulls up his motorized wheelchair next to me, asking me who I am. So I ask him if he wants to be on the radio.

Daijon has been with Artists Unlimited for about 13 years. He’s playing a seahorse named Leeland in the upcoming show. It was a lot to learn at first, he says — acting, dancing, singing — but his mom acted in her youth, and she gave Daijon a push.

He says it’s been a big experience for him, being part of the casts, especially when they did a production of “High School Musical” a few years back.

“Actually, the final night of that show I actually had my first kiss .It was not in the script and nobody said it to me because I was backstage, but I heard someone saying something to one of my friends that they were adding something for me in the script.”

Credit Caitlin Whyte / WXXI News

The Artists Unlimited family is strong, with many of the actors and volunteers having been in multiple productions over the almost two decades Artist Unlimited has been putting them on. This year, the youngest cast member is 13, the oldest 56.

Shannon Enloe is 39, and has been singing for about 20 years now, she says, between lessons at Hochstein and plays with Artists Unlimited.

“I like seeing like all the people coming up me going, ‘Wow, that voice came outta you?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah,’ and they’re like, ‘You’re excellent, yeah.’ According to my teacher, I’m an opera singer-slash-soprano, so I can hit those high notes really well.”

She’s playing three characters this year, including two mermaid sisters.

“I don’t like to talk about my bad day, I like to sing about it. ’Cause vocals help me with problems. Like I can’t sit there and go, ‘Oh, something something happened to me … I got to sing it. That’s how I am.”

Show time is less than a month away, and there’s still choreography to perfect and sets to finish. I mean, this show has flying rigs, something the cast will learn only days before they go on stage. This is a full-blown production.

And that’s part of their mission. On Artists Unlimited’s website, it says, “Musical programs for individuals with special needs are limited, selective, and modest at best, and no real professional production of a musical was available for them to participate in.”

But here it is, and more than 100 volunteers will help finish costumes, move sets to the Kodak Theatre, do hair and makeup for shows, sell merchandise and concessions and much more.  

This story is reported from WXXI’s Inclusion Desk.