These Salt Lake City theaters put accessibility and inclusion center stage

Actors with autism portray a character on the spectrum, and a new elevator helps disabled patrons.

(Steve Speckman | Salt Lake Community College) Student Seth Howell was one of two actors cast as Christopher in a performance of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time" at the Black Box Theatre in November 2021.

This story is jointly published by nonprofits Amplify Utah and The Salt Lake Tribune, in collaboration with Salt Lake Community College, to elevate diverse perspectives in local media through student journalism.

Two Salt Lake City theater groups have worked recently to help people with disabilities experience live performance — as actors and audience members, giving them accessibility and representation.

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 catering 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 centers on 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 are on the autism spectrum.

“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.

(Joshua Black | Salt Lake Acting Company) The old 19th Ward meetinghouse, which is home to Salt Lake Acting Company, is undergoing renovations.

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.”

Over at Salt Lake Acting Company, whose theater is a converted Latter-day Saint meetinghouse in Salt Lake City’s Marmalade neighborhood, the performing arts organization 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?”

Casting for people with disabilities shouldn’t be limited, however, she said. “Actors with disabilities — visible and invisible — should be represented on stage in every type of role.”

The challenge for such inclusivity goes beyond casting choices, to cover providing accessible spaces in the theater, both onstage and off.

In May 2020, SLAC launched the Amberlee Accessibility Fund, launched in memory of 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 Hatton-Ward into the theater.

A fund drive raised more than $1 million to renovate SLAC’s theater lobby to install an elevator that is now operational, taking patrons who need it to the second floor. The fund also is paying to remodel SLAC’s dressing rooms to make them accessible to all.

“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.”

Salt Lake Acting Company’s next production, the Utah premiere of the play “Egress” by Melissa Crespo and Sarah Saltwick, runs Feb. 2 to March 6. It will feature an open-captioned performance on Feb. 20, an audio-described show on Feb. 23, a sensory-friendly performance on Feb. 26, and a performance interpreted into American Sign Language on March 5.

Salt Lake Acting Company has been offering ASL-interpreted performances since 2015, which started with a production of “Tribes,” which 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 also has been producing sensory-friendly performances 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.”

Mike Adamson wrote this story as a journalism student at Salt Lake Community College. It is published as part of a new collaborative including nonprofits Amplify Utah and The Salt Lake Tribune.