The 46 actors have 16 weeks to get ready for their January performances of the Broadway musicals “Shrek” and “Legally Blonde.” In the piano room, Ellen Dunlap, who is playing one of the three little pigs, tries to ignore the throbbing pain on her braced left ankle after working a five-hour shift at a local grocery store. She pulled the tendons in her ankle and the brace has accompanied her for some weeks now. It hurts so badly that she can’t even wear the right shoes, she says, wincing.
A few feet away, five actors playing an angry mob of townspeople run across the white linoleum floor in one of the rooms designated for rehearsal space at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Phoenix. On the lawn outside, where the cast of “Shrek” is practicing their stage movements, the sprinklers go off and the actors run across the lawn, laughing hard as they try to avoid a soaking.
Throughout rehearsals and into January, when the shows open at Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts, the actors are shadowed by coaches who are there to help them interpret directions, maneuver on stage, and learn their cues and lines. That’s a necessity for almost everyone who is part of Detour Company Theatre, which is made up of actors with cognitive and/or physical disabilities.
Detour began 18 years ago when Sam (her first name is her legal name) wanted to give her son, Christopher Forrest, who is developmentally disabled, a meaningful opportunity to perform on stage. She has been the company’s artistic director and its driving force ever since.
Forrest, now 42, smiles as he tells the story. His mother was theater arts coordinator at Phoenix Day School for the Deaf when Forrest, who had spent a lot of time watching her teach, asked, “Mom, look, when is it going to be my turn on stage?”
Forrest plays a UPS delivery man in Detour’s production of “Legally Blonde,” where he gets to say his favorite line: “I have a package for you!”
What does he most enjoy about performing? “I like making people very happy, you see.”
Every season, Sam takes great care in selecting the shows her actors will perform. “Detour always tries to have a point, because theater should always teach, as well as entertain,” she says.
“Shrek” and “Legally Blonde” both deal with characters who can’t accept who they are: Fiona, an ogre who thinks she is too ugly to be a princess, and Elle Woods, a blonde girl who thinks her ex-boyfriend will come back to her if she dyes her hair brown. The characters wish their looks would change in order for them to find love. That theme of self-doubt led Sam to select both shows.
Over the years, artistic performances have adapted to spectators with physical and cognitive disabilities. Many theaters offer American Sign Language interpreters during musicals and plays. Others have headphones so performances can be narrated to those who are visually impaired. Some provide open captioning during performances, where the text of the production is displayed.
Detour productions break any remaining barriers by offering must-see theater with an all-inclusive approach to casting. All of the company’s actors cope with one or more challenges — blindness, deafness, autism, Down syndrome — and all are given an equal chance to perform in one or both of the two Broadway shows that are staged every January.
The shows are free, as they have been for 10 years. It’s an integral part of Detour’s mission of making theater by people with disabilities accessible to everyone — as Sam puts it, a way to say “you are all welcome.”
Detour also provides American Sign Language interpreters, 22 seats for wheelchairs and audio describers — headsets through which someone recounts what is happening on stage, from movements to exits and musical numbers.
Detour’s stage manager, Jean Ray, says that people often have preconceived notions that “that there’s no way we could really be theater.”
“We don’t fit into a little box, and that’s OK,” says Ray. “Detour is just giving these guys a voice. It’s letting people know they have a place in this world, and they should be seen and heard because they’re going to teach you love.”
Ray’s son Taylor, who has Down syndrome, joined Detour six years ago, after hearing about it from Forrest — they played Special Olympics basketball together. He has been a part of the troupe every season since. This year, he is playing Lord Farquaad in “Shrek.”
Some of the performers have as many as four roles in two shows, which makes them nervous and excited. Memorizing the requirements of one role is challenging for any actor. Facing that challenge when you have one or more disabilities, Sam says, is a “grand experiment.”
“If we knew the road, it wouldn’t be the same kind of Detour,” Sam says. “Detours take us off in different directions. Detours are often bumpy and unpredictable, but are usually worth it.”
Mollie Cheswick, 25, is one of the company’s four-role performers this season. When she joined three years ago, she had no experience acting or singing, and she had never performed on a stage. Cheswick is playing a sorority sister and reporter in “Legally Blonde,” and teen Fiona and one of the little pigs in “Shrek.”
On a Thursday rehearsal, she’s dressed as if she had taken a page out of Elle Woods’ style book: sparkly pink Converse shoes, ochre-colored hair tied in pigtails and bangs pinned away from her face with pink barrettes.
“It has been a little hard to learn all of the parts, especially memorizing the music,” says Cheswick, who looks forward to rehearsals and the opportunity to practice and hang out with friends.
Sam and Ray recall how worried they were on the day before last season’s show, “School of Rock.” Dress rehearsals were so chaotic, it looked like the show wasn’t going to happen. But it did.
“There is just something magic about the stage,” says Ray. “The curtain goes up and it all comes together. It happens every time. It’s amazing.”
Audiences get bigger every year, she adds. People with no affiliation to Detour will attend a show on a whim, looking for something to do on the weekend, and leave feeling as if they’d fallen in love.
It’s a typical Thursday evening for the actors of Detour: vocals, choreography, read-throughs, memorization, stage movement, repeat. The main stage troupe is running through the first act of both shows for the first time.
“It’s 4:58 p.m. and we are on page 15,” Sam says frantically. “We have until 5:15 to get to page 30.”
She runs back and forth across the room in loose-fitted denim Dickies overalls and navy Converse All Stars, looking like any other director racing against the clock to pull off two Broadway shows.
By the fifth rehearsal, almost everyone knows the choreography. Only the coaches have scripts in hand. “We are just trying to figure out what the problems are, then we can solve them some other rehearsal,” Sam says.
A roar of laughter breaks out during the second verse of Shrek’s “Welcome to Duloc.” It says, “Please keep of the grass, shine your shoes, wipe your… face.”
As she does at the end of every rehearsal, Sam assembles the actors and wraps up the day’s work with words of encouragement and a sprinkle of constructive criticism: “There are mistakes. When you come back next rehearsal, bring your pencil.”
Moments later, she encourages the actors to raise their hands and say something uplifting about this week’s rehearsal — “I need to hear what is making people proud.” Almost immediately, the room is full of raised hands.
“I was great at Shrek,” one actor says.
“I nailed Professor Callahan,” says another.
Concluding rehearsals on a positive note is Sam’s tradition. She never leaves without saying her signature phrase: “You guys are so awesome.”
How to see “Legally Blonde” and “Shrek”
Both Detour shows will be onstage Jan. 11-13 at Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts, where the Virginia G. Piper Theater has been home to Detour’s performances for the past eight years and picks up a majority of the performance fees.