Opportunities for actors who are disabled are scarce in Salt Lake City

Story and slideshow by MAKAYLA STOWELL

See photos of Sandbox Theatre’s production of “Curtains.”

The overture starts, the lights hit you, and you act your heart out. Actors across the country find this feeling to be one of the most exhilarating and exciting things in the world. Shouldn’t this feeling be equally available to everyone, regardless of disabilities?

However, that is not always the case in Hollywood. Actors with disabilities are finding it very hard to find work.

According to an article published by the Deseret News, actors without disabilities are being hired to portray characters with disabilities far more often for large-scale movies being produced in California.

This isn’t only happening on a national level, however. In a local perspective, there are very few actors with disabilities performing on Utah stages.

What few opportunities there are in Salt Lake are hard to find out about, and harder for actors with disabilities to actually audition for.

But it isn’t about the money. Some actors with disabilities say they just want the chance to perform and feel the exhilaration of performing in front of a live audience.

So how are disabled actors in Utah getting the opportunity to get up on stage and do what they love?

In November 2011, Jordan Valley School in Midvale, Utah, put on a production of “Beauty and the Beast.” The cast was made up entirely of students with disabilities.

According to the KSL news story, the show was a huge success and audiences loved it.

Jaycie Vorhees, music therapist for the school, said in the story, “A lot of them are smiling more than I’ve ever seen them smile before.”

This was one opportunity for actors in high school to perform, but what about those actors who are disabled who aren’t in school?

The Sandbox Theatre Company, located in Midvale, offers an opportunity for one blind actress to get on the stage.

Kira Larkin, who is now 36, has been blind since she was a child and loves to perform.

Bridgette Stowell, the producer for Sandbox Theatre Company, said Sandbox enjoys giving Larkin the opportunity to perform.

“It gives her something to do and she works really hard,” Stowell said.

Stowell recalled one time during a production of “Spamalot” that Larkin walked across the stage holding a sign that read, “Did you say Holy Braille?” instead of Holy Grail, which in a big joke within the show.

She said casting Larkin in the shows does present challenges. “She has to have someone guide her around stage and we have to come up with alternative choreography since she can’t do the major dance stuff.”

Stowell said she has received several comments from audience members who think it is really neat that Larkin can be involved with the shows.

Susan Noren, who came several times to see “Curtains,” the last musical produced by Sandbox, thought that Larkin did a great job.

“I wasn’t distracted by Larkin at all, however at one point I was not sure what she was doing in the background,” said Noren, who was aware of Larkin’s visual impairment before seeing the show.

The choreographers had placed Larkin in the background or off to the side of most numbers because she wasn’t able to do the more advanced choreography.

“I think it is really neat that they would make a part for her and that she can add enrichment to her life by being in the shows,” Noren said.

Noren regularly attends theater performances around the Salt Lake Valley and said she had never seen any other actors with disabilities in another show.

She did, however, say that in another Sandbox Theatre production, she had seen an actor without disabilities play the part of the wheelchair-bound President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Stowell said no actors with disabilities auditioned for the role and the actor who was cast worked hard to portray the disability to the best of his ability.

Larkin started performing when she was in the fourth grade. At her elementary  school, it was required that all students in the fourth and fifth grades audition for the school play.

She fell in love with performing and has been doing it ever since.

The first show she did with the Sandbox Theatre Company was “The Sound of Music” in 2008. She heard about it from a friend who encouraged her to audition. Figuring she had nothing to lose, Larkin went to auditions.

She was cast as a nun in the show. She enjoyed the performing and loved getting out and being involved.

Larkin has been in every performance the company has produced but one since then. These shows include “Beauty and the Beast,” “Annie,” “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat,” “Spamalot” and “Curtains.”

The only show Larkin didn’t audition for was “The Scarlet Pimpernel.” The directors told her there was a lot of dancing in the show and some on-stage combat. It would probably be best if she sat that one out.

She missed performing but understood and came back to audition for the next one.

“The hardest part is sitting and waiting while everyone else learns the choreography,” Larkin said.

The choreographers have to be patient as does Larkin while they teach modified versions of the more difficult choreography to her.

Larkin is not aware of any other theater companies in Salt Lake that allow and even encourage actors who are disabled to audition for the shows.

She does have other friends who are disabled who do theater in the community. Her friend Kyle, who is also blind, has been in “Savior of the World” at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Conference Center. Like many other talented artists, he also plays the piano despite not being able to see.

Resources for actors with disabilities are available, however. A company called Abilities United Productions allows actors who are disabled to post pictures, resumes and contact information on the company website for potential casting opportunities.

Abilities United works mostly with paraplegics but will represent any actor with any disability.

The company is based in Logan, Utah. Larry N. Sapp II created the company in 2005 after he nearly lost his life in an accident that left him paralyzed from the waist down. He also designed the business model for the company.

Abilities United aims to create an accurate representation of people with disabilities in its independent films. It also hires crew members who are disabled.

The company has produced several feature and short films, all starring actors with disabilities. These films include “London Time” and “Forever Yours.” All titles can be found on its website.

Through companies like Sandbox and Abilities United, actors who are disabled are getting more opportunities to perform. As Larkin wrote in her biography for the play bill of “Curtains,” “(I) would like to thank (the production team of Sandbox) for making my life better by performing in these shows.”

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