posted Monday January 9th, 2017
I sobbed my way through three performances of Beauty and the Beast this weekend.
“WHO ARE YOU?” my friend Trish asked as I wiped away tears yesterday afternoon. The curtain hadn’t even gone up yet.
“I don’t know,” I said, sniffling loudly then flipping her off to confirm I’m still me, still the asshole she’s always known and loved.
Beauty and the Beast has never been one of my favorites — I’ve always found the talking dishware annoying, thought the story extra trite — and while I’m at it, I might as well admit that I really don’t care much for community theater in general.
But I’d watch Detour Company Theatre do any show, any time. And after this weekend, I can’t get enough Beauty and the Beast.
This theater troupe is comprised solely of adults with developmental disabilities (and a few other challenges), but when there’s a role for a kid, the director drops the age limit, which is how Sophie came to play the youngest Fiona in Shrek, and one of the children in South Pacific. “I would never cast one of our adults as a child,” Sam told me the other day. She doesn’t want to infantilize someone who already doesn’t get their due from the world. That’s just one of the reasons I love her.
I didn’t always love Detour. There was a really long time — both before Sophie was born and after — when I wouldn’t even consider watching this group perform, people who used wheelchairs and had trouble speaking clearly, who needed coaches on stage to guide them — sometimes through the simplest motions. People with a variety of diagnoses in various shapes and sizes. People like Sophie.
The people you don’t see on Broadway or in the movies, people you don’t even see in community theater. Not much, anyway.
Not enough, I’ve decided.
That’s why, even though I’m not a fan of the play or the movie or the music or the story, I was thrilled when Sam (no last name, just Sam) cast Sophie as “Chip,” the little tea cup, in Beauty and the Beast, which finished its run yesterday on the big stage at Scottsdale Center for the Arts. I knew I’d change my mind about the show; I always change my mind about Sam’s shows.
By the end, I was cooing over Belle — who among us can’t relate to a nerdy girl who loves books?! — and of course I’d fallen hard for the dishes, including Sophie. One of my favorite parts of Detour is how Sam works to make the message of the particular production relate to the members of her cast. For example, past productions of “Hairspray” and “Shrek” offered perfect opportunities for gentle lessons about celebrating people who are different, about looking beyond outward appearances, and “Beauty” offered that plus an extra lesson in kindness. Belle has to learn to be kind to the Beast, and he to her.
Watching the production this weekend, I was struck by how kind the coaches are to the actors, and even more so how kind the actors are to one another — patiently waiting for a fellow cast member struggling with a line, reaching out a hand to soothe a frayed nerve, offering a hug at the end of a show stopping number. Sophie came home with notes, gifts, flowers — and several crushes.
Of course there’s a catch.
At the very end of the play, after Belle professes her love for the Beast and he is magically transformed back into the Prince, Chip turns to Mrs. Potts and asks, “Are they gonna live happily ever after, Mama?”
“Of course, my dear. Of course,” Mrs. Potts replies.
Chip looks puzzled, then asks, “Do I still have to sleep in the cupboard?”
And everyone laughs. Except me. That line really gets me because yeah, well, kind of.
Most of these people, that beautiful cast, are back in the cupboard today. There’s a party later this week and soon Sam will begin work on the next Detour production, but for too many, I fear, Detour is their one and only truly meaningful activity. Most won’t move on to perform with other theater companies. Some have day jobs, but I wonder how much bliss they take from them? I don’t know much about their daily lives; for the most part it’s not appropriate to ask. Sometimes I’m afraid to know.
I get that for any of us, our time onstage — our moment in the sun, to do what we truly love and to thunderous applause — is limited at best. But it’s so much tougher for someone with an intellectual disability to find that magic. Sam packs several dozen actors on stage at a time, and even at that, I’m sure there are scores of others in metro Phoenix who would love the opportunity. Programs like this are too rare (I’d argue that Detour is one of a kind, but I know there are similar theater troops here and elsewhere) and it takes more than just a program, no matter how good it is.
As Sophie enters her teen years I’m just beginning to realize how hard it is to find meaningful ways to include people with intellectual disabilities in the arts as they grow older. It has to happen beyond a troupe of people with disabilities. It has to be about making opportunities, integrating classes and camps, accepting and learning, making mistakes and pushing past fears.
It won’t always be Broadway-perfect. And that’s more than okay.