Improving the experience for people with disabilities is taking the spotlight for two Salt Lake City theaters, both on the stage and in the audience.
In recent months, Salt Lake Community College’s Black Box Theatre produced a play that included actors with autism in the lead role of a character who also has autism, and Salt Lake Acting Company has remodeled its space to better accommodate actors and audiences with disabilities, and offered shows catered to these audiences.
In November 2021, the Black Box Theatre presented “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” the play by Simon Stephens based on the book of the same name by Mark Haddon. The play stars Christopher, a 15-year-old boy who has autism, as he unravels the mystery of a neighborhood murder. Two of the three actors cast in the role of Christopher for the Black Box Theatre production were autistic.
“We are able to switch between [actors] at the moment that Christopher might be overwhelmed with emotions,” said Zac Curtis, associate professor of theater at SLCC. “It’s symbolizing for us the way a person experiencing these deep emotions might say, ‘this is too much for me right now,’ and then they need another piece of themselves to fill in.”
Seth Howell, a general education major and one of the actors who portrayed Christopher, has previous experience with the play and said the Black Box’s approach is unique.
“I’ve helped out in ‘Curious Incident’ before, with how those shows interpreted autism, because their actors don’t have autism, but I do,” he said. “It’s pretty cool to get to be a part of a show that I’ve always been a part of and helped before.”
Those involved with the Black Box Theatre production said they appreciated the challenges of showing the perspective of someone with autism.
Cameron Westland, a theater major who played several parts, said the show gives the audience “a little glimpse into struggles that people deal with, that aren’t always noticed or go unspoken, like autism, and trying to fit … into society sometimes becomes challenging for those people.”
The Black Box is not the only Salt Lake City theater putting inclusivity and accessibility at the forefront. Salt Lake Acting Company, a performing arts organization based in the Marmalade neighborhood, supports casting actors with disabilities or actors living similar experiences to the characters they play.
“Representation matters,” said SLAC accessibility coordinator Natalie Keezer. “Who would be better to tell this story than a person who has navigated the world in a way that is similar to Christopher?”
Keezer noted that casting for people with disabilities shouldn’t be limited, however.
“Actors with disabilities — visible and invisible — should be represented on stage in every type of role,” she said.
The challenge for this inclusivity is not limited to casting choices, but also to providing accessible spaces in the theater, both on- and off-stage.
In May 2020, SLAC launched the Amberlee Accessibility Fund, launched in memory of loyal patron Amberlee Hatton-Ward, who died in 2019. Hatton-Ward used a wheelchair and frequently attended holiday productions, which were presented in SLAC’s Upstairs Theatre. Without an elevator available, friends and family had to carry her into the theater.
More than $1 million was raised to renovate SLAC’s theater lobby to provide elevator access to the second floor. Dressing rooms will also be more accessible.
“If theater companies work to make artist spaces such as dressing rooms and backstage areas accessible to everyone, actors with disabilities will know that they are welcome to audition at that theater company,” Keezer said. “If audition rooms are a safe space for actors … to disclose information about their disability and safely ask for accommodations, there will be more actors with disabilities auditioning.”
SLAC opened its 50th season with “Four Women Talking About the Man Under the Sheet” by Elaine Jarvik. The show featured open-captioned, audio-described and American Sign Language-interpreted performances.
Salt Lake Acting Company has been offering ASL-interpreted performances since 2015, which started with a production of “Tribes” that featured a deaf actor playing a character who is deaf.
“It was through ‘Tribes’ that we started to become more aware of the experience we were — or weren’t — providing to members of the deaf community or others with visible or invisible disabilities,” Keezer said.
SLAC has also been including sensory-friendly performances produced for individuals with sensory needs, including people on the autism spectrum. Light and sound levels remain low, and the intensity of any startling or loud sounds or strobe lighting is reduced. The show is modified to allow for patron movement and there are designated quiet spaces within the theater.
“Accessible performances will become more and more common,” said Keezer. “Theatre should be accessible to everyone.”
Curtis said he, too, is eager to provide more opportunity and representation at the Black Box Theatre for people with disabilities, including those with autism.
“Hopefully, in future shows, we can keep thinking … about ways in which every voice can find a place within a show,” Curtis said. “It’s time for us to be putting stories on stage that represent everybody.”