Two businessmen plow their money into a community theater that hires special-needs actors.
When Mary Lou Wilson dropped her grandson, Clayton Kerrigan, off at the Main Street Theater in Columbiana, Ohio, for the first time, she had no idea what to expect.
“He’s 36 years old, and he’s had some problems,” Wilson says. “He’s a great guy and a great grandson, but he has some disabilities. And, like a lot of us, wants to make friends. But sometimes doesn’t know how.”
When she returned hours later to pick him up, “he had the biggest smile on his face!”
The theater is in an old building in downtown Columbiana, a small town of about 6,000 some 70 miles south of Youngstown. Once known for good antiquing, the town has struggled to sustain itself as the Rust Belt economy slowed and residents and businesses left. The theater had been long abandoned when Don Arthurs, a young tech entrepreneur who stuck around, bought it with his wife in 2007.
With the idea of giving back while reviving Main Street in the struggling town, they restored the building beautifully and then launched Crown Theater Productions, a nonprofit theater company that puts on a handful of shows every year, including two using only actors who have special needs.
The special-needs players get a partner (“the first thing they do is say, ‘This is your buddy, and you’re going to help each other’”), a part in the play, and a star turn on the red carpet for the premiere.
Wilson said her grandson had been through countless support programs, but nothing ever touched him like this. His confidence soared, and his family’s hearts sang.
“After the play—it was pure, unadulterated joy,” Wilson says. “These kids change. And I saw the change in my grandson.”
For Arthurs and his wife, who are both deeply religious, bringing this grace into the world is its own reward.
“It’s our ministry, our service to the community,” Arthurs says. “Kids walk in wearing earplugs because of noise sensitivity. A few weeks later the earplugs are gone and they’re on a stage, singing in front of hundreds of people.”
Do you want to witness a life-changing event? Come to the Main Street Theater in the small town of Columbiana, Ohio, and attend one of productions of a well-known play presented each spring and fall. Watch as local special needs individuals take over center stage and amaze everyone with their quality performance. How is this possible? Let me tell you the story.
Mr. & Mrs. Don Arthurs took the profit from the sale of a business and bought a rundown theater on Main Street. They renovated it and made it available to Crown Theater Productions who offer a full schedule of plays each season. Deb Salmen, Executive Director for Crown attended a performance of a play at a church that featured special-needs actors and she was moved not only to tears of joy, but action. She suggested to her colleague, Erich Offenburg, Artistic Director for Crown Theater Productors and an experienced actor that they produce a show utilizing only physically or mentally disabled people. The first such play, in 2016, had fifteen actors. The latest production, Annie Jr., had twenty-nine from Columbiana and surrounding areas.
As a former special needs educator, Erich understands the challenges his actors face and he know how to help them deal with the situation. He says, “Communication is always the first task. If the actor is a child, communication with the parent is essential. We don’t know the children, just their diagnosis.”
Problems they work with are physical, developmental, behavioral and/or emotional. These do not mean the actors are not intelligent or capable. It simply indicates a specific challenge a normal person does not have.
Erich takes pride in the quality of each show; each play take three months of hard work for everyone. Every play brings new people and new challenges. Once he gets to know the individual actor Erich does his best to match the person to the role in the play for his specific personality. He uses many techniques to accomplish this goal. At each practice, Erich creates an atmosphere where each individual feels secure. He makes it clear they are members of a family, the theater family.
To quote one actor, Clayton Kerrigan, “He makes us feel comfortable.”
These are licensed junior versions of widely recognized productions written especially for actors seventeen years old and under and geared toward schools. With special permission from the publishers all the actors in Crown Theater Productions are special needs and there are no age restrictions. As far as they know nowhere else in the United States does this happen.
This is the foundation upon which Erich builds his play. Always smiling, always nurturing, that’s Erich when he is working with his actors. His love for and acceptance of each individual is readily apparent.
He began the rehearsal I witnessed by reminding everyone they are there to work. He made it equally clear there would be breaks for social time. He uses those words “social time,” as if to reinforce their importance. He stresses they are all friends. There is a time to work and a time to be talking with friends.
One mother told me, “He brings out the best in them.”
Notice her words. The best is already in them. All they need is what all of us need from time to time. A little help.
One unique problem, what do you do when your lead actor can’t be in a crowd and there are sixty people on stage? How do you work around a diagnosis like brain injury, speech problems, limited attention, an actor confined to a wheel chair and more?
Each actor has an attendant whose job is to help her learn lines and cues as well as where to be on stage. The attendants are dressed in black so as not to be noticed on stage, attends each practice and may stand behind each actor to help them as needed.
Some attendants are high school students who want to do community service hours required for scholarships and The National Honor Society. It helps on college entrance.
Erich says “I gotta tell you, I’ve never known a student who stuck around for just that reason.”
The idea for attendants came straight from special education classes. The attendant’s job is to push a little bit to help the actor reach further goals and encourage independence. If they coddle too much what happens is you will see “I need my lines,” instead of just the first word. It’s a balancing act.
Erich says “We have parents who come drop off their child to let him be independent and go. We have some who say, ‘I need to be the attendant.’ Some want to help, but not their child. As one parent shared, ‘I want my daughter to experience working with somebody else.'”
When you consider the other talent that goes into producing a play such as choreography, music, costumes, set design, stage management and crews, props, lights, sound and many more the number of volunteer hours this town with a population less than seven thousand contributes is staggering. For the last production, Annie Jr. the attendant volunteer hours alone totaled over 2000.
Everyone involved strives for excellence. They achieve it with months of hard work, attention to detail, perseverance and more hard work. There is a goal to achieve and that is nothing short of the best show possible.
Special needs shows are unique and Erich tells the audience what they are about to experience. Before the curtain comes up an announcement is made about the presence and purpose of attendants. The dialogue is projected above the stage as an added precaution.
Erich asks the audience “How many of you are willing to step up on stage and sing a solo?”
That perhaps helps them appreciate what they are about to see putting the accomplishments of the actors in perspective.
“We’ve had audiences that have come and changed their understanding of the whole special needs community: “Did you hear her voice? It sounded just like someone on the radio.”
Some local schools bring entire classes to the play. And these students see their classmates shine in a whole new light. They see ability, not disability for perhaps the first time.
Parents are stunned. Many to tears when they see the joy and pride on their child’s face. A frequent response is gratitude, and the desire to help with the next production.
The rewards for the actors are enormous. Their lives are often filled with pain and rejection. As strangers with personal problems of various types slowly they form friendships. For some, for the first time. That is a monumental step in itself for many of them.
From walking the red carpet on opening day to the final exuberant autograph signing at the closing, what they accomplish is life-changing. Some can’t sign their name for various reasons. A rubber stamp is made for them. The problem is solved and they can join the celebration.
Erich and Deb want others to see what they are doing and either support them or be encouraged to start a similar program. To that end they hope someday to publish a “How To” book.
I could go on about the magic Erich manages to accomplish. To me he is the Mr. Rogers of special needs, but it is the town itself that makes it all happen.
Major funding comes from the Columbiana Community Foundation, Inc. The local Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts pitched in when a wheelchair lift was needed to get one actor on and off the stage. Whatever the problem the town pulls together and makes it all happen.
Erich says the most satisfying thing is seeing people succeed in something they didn’t think they could do. As the grandmother of one of the actors I agree, but there is so much more. The most satisfying thing is how the life of each actor changes thank to the good people of Columbiana.
The answer to the lead actor being uncomfortable in a crowd is blocking. When the play is blocked, everyone learns his exact movements on the stage, he is always put on an end so he feels he has a way out.
Thanks to the residents of Columbiana, growth will continue and lives will be changed one production at a time.