Blazing a Trail

By Bridgette Redman

A simple question 19 years ago launched a theater company that has changed lives and opened doors for its participants.

The question was, “When is it my turn?”

A school for the deaf arts teacher, Sam, who legally just goes by her first name, was leaving building when her son, Chris Forrest, who has developmental disabilities, asked her that question. She looked at him and said, “It’s always your turn, you’re always hanging out on the stage.”

He said, “No, when is it my turn to have a play for me?”

At the time he had just aged out of school and Sam found there was very little for older people with disabilities, besides the Special Olympics. So, what could they do to be creative or have social outlets if they were not athletically inclined or interested? She took a leave from her school and started a program.

For the first three shows, she collaborated with a woman who wanted to do a recreational drama program. Sam wanted something more. So, she launched Detour Company Theatre, a group that casts people of all abilities.

“I didn’t want to water it down. I really wanted to do theater,” Sam says. “Today at rehearsal, these kids worked so hard. It was like I was teaching them ‘A Chorus Line.’ They were all doing choreography for ‘Mamma Mia.’ They get scared and frustrated, but they never give up. They are just my heroes. They want it and I will do anything in my power to deliver it.”

Halfway through, she married Christopher’s stepdad who was actively involved. Eight years ago, he died and Sam thought Detour would die with him. However, soon thereafter, her daughter gave birth to a severely disabled child.

“I realized there was always going to be a new generation of Detour, even if my heart was broken, we needed to keep going, somehow or other,” Sam says. “We did and it’s been an amazing journey. It’s a very caring community.”

Now they are getting ready to stage “Mamma Mia,” the hit ABBA musical from Friday, June 7, to Sunday, June 9, at the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts.

The show is ASL interpreted, audio described and admission is free—though donations are always welcome.

When her son describes what makes Detour different from other theaters, he compares them to the shows his mother used to do.

“We do big shows,” Forrest says.

Their shows can have up to 70 actors—the current show has 46—and there are often mentors or coaches on stage to help with moving wheelchairs or providing guidance to people with visual impairments.

“Coaches serve two functions,” she says. “Dividing them into coach groups lets people get that individual care and attention they need. People need varying degrees of coaching. I have a young woman who uses a motorized chair. We asked her if she could use a push chair because there are so many people on stage; so we have a coach pushing the push chair. We have many people with mobility issues. We have two interpreters on stage with our deaf actors. I have two actors who are blind. They each have someone to guide them or describe so they know what is going on.”

The coaches help actors who might get lost know where to exit or to help with a quick costume change. Whenever coaches have to be on stage, they are in costume and singing. They won’t have lines, but they’ll do all the group numbers and react as characters on stage.

“There are some very obvious things I need to do,” she says. “I need someone who can audio describe, someone who can interpret, someone who can work with someone in a chair. I need people who are respectful. People who can work with those who are on the autism spectrum. People like my son might decide to wander off or go to a corner with a book.”

Her job as a director is different. She can’t assume her actors will study and prepare. Instead, she plans study sessions. She can’t assume her actors will pick up on the more subtle meanings of a show.

And the biggest challenge? Transportation.

“But beyond that? I don’t change a thing,” she says. “I expect them to pay attention. I expect them to give with all their heart. I expect them to honor the work and the courage of their fellow actors and I expect them to take risks.”

One of her actors, Steven Schwartz, has been performing with Detour for nearly 15 years. His friend persuaded him to audition for “Oklahoma” and he was cast as Judd. Since then, he’s been Conrad Birdie in “Bye, Bye, Birdie,” Curly in “Oklahoma,” Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof,” the Beast and Gaston in “Beauty and the Beast” among others. He’s now playing Sam Carmichael, one of the dads, in “Mamma Mia.”

He auditioned for theater in high school, but wasn’t cast and gave up until he was introduced to Detour and his talents were able to be seen.

He has high praise for Jenna Jenkins, the woman playing Donna in “Mamma Mia.” Jenkins has been blind since birth and has had a passion for singing since she was young. Her first show with Detour was “West Side Story,” and she’s done nearly 10 shows since then.

“Every show so far has been my favorite,” Jenkins says. “They keep getting better. We’re a family together. We can rely on each other for helping. It’s a perfect fit.”

Choreography can be challenging, but others guide her, she says. Still, she feels independent. Schwartz and Jenkins enjoy the characters they are playing and have gotten to know them well.

Jenkins likes her character’s maternal aspects and the way she expresses those feelings.

“She softens up at the end,” Jenkins says. “I like that because I have a soft heart. I feel like she has a big heart and it goes out to so many people.”

She’s dedicating this performance to her friend, Patricia Richardson, who died May 9.

Schwartz and Forrest agree on the best part of performing:

“I like when people clap at the end,” Forrest says.

“The applause,” Schwartz adds . “It’s fun, everyone is high fiving you and stuff like that. Otherwise, I’m kind of invisible.”

Detour does two to three main stage shows a year and they try to do a traveling production each year—going wherever anyone will pay their transportation costs. Several years ago, they went to San Francisco while last year they toured around the state. Her goal, Sam says, is for someone to invite them to the Kennedy Center.

“That’s my big dream,” she says. “I’ll just throw that out to the world to see if we can make that dream come true.”

She says she gives very little introduction to audiences about what they are going to see. She wants them to experience the work her actors are doing.

“I kind of like knowing that I have a secret, knowing that I have this incredible gift and if they will just sit down and wait for the lights to go off, I can promise them they are going to be absolutely awed,” Sam says. “When I see how much love there is in that room for them, maybe I have pushed the perception of disability just a tiny bit. We’ve pushed that perception of what someone can do or who someone can be. I feel very much like Detour is blazing a trail. We stand for opportunity and we stand for possibility.”  

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