A Spotlight on Abilities

Local theater casting actors with disabilities returns this fall for ‘Bye Bye Birdie’

By Taylor Shillam

The Out of the Shadows Theater is known for bringing abilities out of the shadows and into the spotlight. With every role in its productions played by an actor with a disability or special needs, including cognitive, physical and developmental disabilities, the theater provides unique opportunities for people both within and outside of the special needs community. During rehearsals and performances, they are accompanied by a shadow actor who provides coaching and support as a reassuring presence onstage.

“We want to be a blessing to the disability community and to everyone involved in our productions,” shared board member Suzanne Knutson. “But we also want to show the community that these people may be affected by disabilities, but they have abilities too. We want to spotlight their abilities and allow them to be seen first.”


The theater’s productions provide the community as a whole a better understanding and familiarity with people with disabilities. “Not everyone knows someone who is disabled,” Knutson said. The theater provides a setting for inclusion, acceptance and a sense of magic made possible by the Coeur d'Alene community.


This year, the theater’s board members had a difficult time deciding if their fall show would be able to go on as scheduled, due to the ever-changing COVID climate. “As a board, we decided to rely on the direction of Governor Little, the mayor, Kootenai County and Panhandle Health to make that decision,” Knutson said.


That decision took months of meetings and discussions to reach. During that time, the board explored the possibilities of moving to a summer production, to an alternate venue, or completely renovating their entire plan for the show. All of the theater’s past productions have been held at the KROC Center, whose ADA-compliant stage area and seat count of 400 have made it the ideal venue for the cast and crew.


“COVID has really affected us,” Knutson said. “We try to do our best to do whatever kind of social distancing or small grouping is needed to keep everyone comfortable.” The theater has always adapted to meet the needs of each individual actor, as well as the needs of its production crew, and continues to do so throughout the pandemic.


Out of the Shadows Theater’s central focus has always been the actors—and creating the best possible experience for them was at the heart of their decision-making. “Yes, we want them to be able to perform in front of a full audience, but we also want them to have the full performance experience, with the stage, lights, all the bells and whistles,” Knutson said. This thought process redirected the board away from scheduling an outdoor production in the summer.


In late August, the board reached a decision to move forward with its fall production, on its originally set dates. “Bye Bye Birdie,” a more comedy-oriented production than the theater’s past productions, will hit the stage this fall for five shows in late October and early November, holding their location at the KROC to maintain integrity of the shows and the high level of quality they are known for.


The theater’s goal has been presenting one professional-quality musical production per year. From its first production of “Beauty and the Beast” in 2016, it has sold out numerous performances annually.


“Each year, our actors have flourished in the spotlight while realizing their own gifts and talents, and they have been recognized by the community for those abilities rather than disabilities,” Out of the Shadows Theater writes on their social media pages. “We are honored to be able to spotlight our actors in quality musical productions.”


Most of the actors cast at Out of the Shadows Theater are adults. While support for people with disabilities is strong in the earliest years of life, “once people leave elementary school or public education, there isn’t a ton of adult support with disabilities,” Knutson said. Alongside every actor is their non-disabled shadow actor to provide them encouragement, prompting and support. Shadow actors assist with learning lines, choreography and lyrics, often developing a deep friendship with their actors that continues off the stage.


Much of the theater's successful productions have depended on community support and donations helping to cover costs like rent dues, costume creation, set construction and technology.


“It’s a beautiful thing: We have a very art-oriented community, and a community-oriented community. We are very fortunate,” Knutson said, grateful for the continued support from organizations like the Coeur d’Alene Chamber of Commerce and Coeur d’Alene Art Association. With the support of the arts community, the integration with the local disability community—including organizations like TESH Inc. and Project Search—and the thriving creative spirit in Coeur d’Alene, they hope to continue growing into the future.


The Out of the Shadows Theater hopes to expand their productions into the Spokane area in the coming years. They also hope to build on their connection with Coeur d’Alene’s thriving visual arts community, to team with local artists to put on art workshops covering visual and fine art skills including photography, printmaking and painting.


With the support Out of the Shadows has already experienced from the local art and theater community, there is ample opportunity to build on those connections and connect with Coeur d'Alene in new ways.


"It’s pretty rare. It’s pretty special,“ Knutson said. “Every time we mention it, people get so excited to get involved. We have amazing community support.”


In addition to serving on the board, Knutson heads the theater's marketing and promotions. With her background in special needs, she knew she needed to get involved with the theater when she first learned about it on a weekend visit to Coeur d’Alene. After attending one of its first productions, she then became involved as a shadow actor the following year. Now, working to further spread the word about Out of the Shadows Theater, Knutson has only excitement and gratitude for the experiences she's had so far.


“It’s been a blast. I have learned so much,” she said. “We’re giving opportunities to people who may not have otherwise had them.”


The Out of the Shadows Theater’s production of “Bye Bye Birdie” will hit the KROC Center stage across two weekends this fall: October 29 through 31, and November 4 and 5. The 31st will be a 2pm matinee showing, with the other shows scheduled for 7:30pm.


Tickets are slated to be available starting October 1 at $14 per individual, or $10 per person at a group rate of 10 or more people. Those interested in attending and keeping up with news of the production can visit OutoftheShadowsTheater.com and sign up for the email newsletter to be the first to receive all new updates.


Those interested in volunteering can reach out online to get involved as a shadow actor, or aid with various aspects of production, with available opportunities including building sets, working the lobby and working backstage.


Even through a challenging season, the Out of the Shadows' production crew and team have grown this year, with new people ready to share in highlighting unique talents and abilities.


"We have new people who are just jumping in," Knudson said. "Even though times are uncertain, people still see this as important enough to get on board."



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