By Max McQueen
Photos by Johanna Huckeba and Christine Keith/Detour Theatre
Suspense filled the air at Fredrickson Hall of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in east Phoenix as Detour Company Theatre, the 16-year-old theater troupe, anxiously awaited the announcement of this year’s production.
More than 60 men and women with various disabilities were waiting with bated breath for Sam (one name only please – “like Cher”) to announce the “really big show” of the upcoming season. When the theater’s hyper-energetic founder and director shouted “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, Jr.,” cheers erupted from Detour’s long-time players as well as those new to the company.
Sam’s casting selection is unique. Throughout the summer, men and women of all ages work on their acting chops in hopes of being in a Detour musical. They show up the first week of September every year with no idea what production Sam has in mind, or what role they might play in a show at the Scottsdale Center for Arts that always seems to have a cast of thousands.
“When we started, we were serving only those with cognitive disabilities,” says Sam, in a rare moment of stillness, “But we soon let go of that. Now we have people from the community who have a visual or hearing impairment or who have any number of physical disabilities.”
Having a visual impairment and “a not so hot singer” by her own assessment, Jenna Jenkins, 42, wondered how she would get around stage in the previous production, “Mary Poppins.” No problem. Jenna did the vocals, another “Mary” carried the props such as the umbrella and yet another said lines. In essence, three people played different aspects of the same character. All three were coached around the stage by an “invisible” actor who guided them safely across the stage to their positions, called “shadowing” in theater vernacular. As for learning lines – the Foundation for the Blind generates Braille scripts for Detour.
When I asked Sam about Jenna’s singing ability, Sam said Jenna has “an absolutely fabulous” voice. So Jenna was obviously being WAY too modest about her vocal abilities.
David Mayes has been in each of Detour’s many shows, starting with “The Wizard of Oz.” Over the years, it’s been a lot of rehearsals and classes, as Sam demands a lot from the cast. “I just plain like acting and singing and dancing,” Mayes said. “It’s fun, too.”
Whereas Mayes says he’s not at all nervous on stage, Christopher Forrest admits to getting a little jittery. Those nerves actually helped when he too was in Detour’s first show, playing the Cowardly Lion. Acting also helped him with his shyness off stage.
Forrest, who has autism, is Sam’s son. It was his desire to become an actor that led to the formation of Detour. In the late 1990s, Sam couldn’t find any theaters that would be a good fit for her son; she started the non-profit troupe for Forrest and his friends.
“Every year we have a theme. This year it’s ‘kindness,’ as seen in ‘Beauty and the Beast,’” Sam says. “But overall the company has just three rules. Number one is to have fun. Number two is to have fun. And number three – you’ll notice a trend here – is to have fun.”
Backstage photos by Johanna Huckeba.
Onstage photos by Christine Keith/Detour Theatre.
Max McQueen was a theater critic for the East Valley Tribune from 1981 to 2003. He served on the Ability360 board of directors from 2004-2014 and is currently the Executive Director of the Lura Turner Homes for Adults with Developmental Disabilities.