Artists Unlimited has been bringing together actors with and without disabilities for plays for 18 years, and WXXI’s Caitlin Whyte has been following the cast and crew of this year’s show, “The Little Mermaid.” For the last of her three stories from WXXI’s Inclusion Desk, she talked to one of the lead stars and his family about how the program affects them.
In the boys’ dressing room, Vickie Vignare is holding an iPhone for her daughter Kristen, who is using it as a reference to do her brother Anthony’s makeup, as he gets ready to hit the stage as Grimsby, Prince Eric’s caretaker.
Vickie says this is their fifth Artists Unlimited show as a family. Her husband, Phil, is out front helping with concessions, while she and Kristen help with costumes.
Vickie says they searched for a theater program for Anthony for a while, but could never find the right fit. After seeing an Artists Unlimited production of "Peter Pan" years ago, they knew they found the place. And five years later, Anthony has his first lead role.
“For them to be able to go out there and enjoy their love of theater and singing and dancing without having to worry about, you know, is someone going to say something about me over here or… just “I fit in.”
She says it’s an opportunity for everyone to meet kids from other schools, that they would have never before. She talks about the feeling of community backstage.
“So now Anthony’s here in this dressing room with all these boys, and I feel like I gained four more sons. 'Who’s fixing whose collar?' and 'Make sure you look good before you go out' and 'Can you help me button my cuffs?' ... things like that.”
Anthony agrees and says that he likes that his whole family takes part in the production, and then they get to talk to all the people who came to watch him perform.
“It’s really fun. And at the end of every show, they do a meet-and-greet of the cast, so we all come out in our costumes and we all come out for a meet and greet.”
He says this show, "The Little Mermaid," is his favorite so far.
“One of my favorites from the show this year has got to be 'Fathoms Below' because I have a funny part in that one. I have to pretend I’m seasick on the boat.”
Kristen is drawing black lines on Anthony’s face with a Q-tip to make him look much older than his 19 years. As she paints, she talks about what these plays mean to her family. She says she wanted to do something to help her get closer to her older brother.
“We weren’t necessarily the closest before this, and this is just another connection that I’ve made with him. It’s something else that we have in common, which has definitely helped in our relationship.”
I can see in the mirror that Vickie is getting emotional as she watches her daughter, who is 14, talk about Anthony.
“What other parent would not want to hear that? You’re like, 'Aw, my kids are bonding!' How cool is that! She’s had to mature quicker than most kids her age. You know, sometimes we’ll go places and we’ll say, 'OK, keep an eye on your brother!' He doesn’t wander, but years ago, he used to. And she knew growing up that, that’s something she’ll have to deal with for the rest of her life is just … watching out for him. So it’s kind of cool that they have that secure bond.”
I leave the Vignares and let them finish getting ready. Down the hall, crewmembers are wrangling up cast members for warmups, and the energy is palpable.
It’s about 20 minutes to show time.
Performances continue Thursday, Nov. 15, through Saturday, Nov. 17, at the Kodak Theater.
This story is reported from WXXI’s Inclusion Desk.