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.
Wager says that the ones that stand out were the most fun and technically challenging, like The Little Mermaid. For that production, an aerial choreographer even donated time to assist with the difficulties. More important than technicalities though, Wager says that the most memorable moments are those when she has witnessed performers overcome personal fears and obstacles. She recalls an actress playing Peter Pan who was afraid of flying. Every single show, that performer would put herself into actress mode and overcome her fear as if it were nothing.
In short, the most gratifying part of Wager’s job is witnessing the confidence that individuals gain, being able to showcase their talents without fear. Some of her fondest memories are recognizing a kid who once had reservations about performing and being able to see how much they’ve improved by putting themselves out there and fully committing to the performance. Some of the performers are so timid starting out but then are able to challenge themselves and improve enough to have their own line in a show.
As for the future of Artists Unlimited, Wager hopes that the organization can continue expanding the types of programs it can support and offer. Artists Unlimited wants to be able to give even more opportunities to individuals so that many others can witness the talents they have to share.
Every year these productions continue to break barriers and show that individuals both with and without disabilities are more than capable of creating memorable theatrical experiences. It’s quite evident that giving people the opportunity and open-minded environment to showcase their abilities is what truly allows them to shine, and Artists Unlimited of Rochester does just that.