It all started when Ed Schram, a longtime supporter of musical theater, attended a musical production of Grease. Schram noticed a child in the audience who was singing and dancing along to the musical. After the production had finished, he approached the parent of that child and told them how their kid should be up there. Unfortunately, that parent said, “Nobody wants my kid on stage.” That was where Rochester’s Artists Unlimited began.
The mission of Artists Unlimited is to provide opportunities for individuals with special needs and developmental disabilities to participate in musical theater in a way that they haven’t had before. Schram wanted individuals like the one he saw in the audience that night to be able to showcase their talents just like anybody else. So, in 2002, he took action, launching the nonprofit.
About nine years ago, Bethany Wager was asked to help stage manage for RAU. She recalls, “I was instantly hooked on the energy and excitement, so I committed to helping every year.” Wager had known Schram for years; her father, being a musical director, had always helped with school productions. Now, Wager is Vice President of Artists Unlimited and has witnessed the growth and progress that the organization has made each year.
Artists Unlimited started with just musical productions which grew in both audience and participation size year after year. Eventually, the program had so many people asking to be in shows and the waitlist grew so long that Artists Unlimited decided they wanted to be able to provide more opportunities. This need for expansion is what created the program “Voices,” a choir in which over 100 performers showcase their singing abilities.
Wager says that the productions have continued to grow. They started out in a tiny theater downtown, eventually moving to several larger theaters like the one at the Kodak Center. She explains that there are also logistical benefits to using a big theater, as they must consider handicap access to both the audience and stage when putting on these productions.
A lot of factors go into choosing which production will be done, such as what size theater Artists Unlimited will be able to get. The most important factor, however, is the moral and message of the story being told. Artists Unlimited wants to choose a story that its participants can relate to. The most recent production from Artists Unlimited was The Lion King Jr.