Tradition revived, and a new day dawns

Technical Director Noah Carpenter and Show Director Lauren Salerno put on north Alabama’s first sensory-friendly theater performance in Oct. 2018, with “Mary Poppins” at Wallace State. (W.C. Mann for The Cullman Tribune)

This feature was originally printed in the special “Community Matters” section of the March 19, 2019 edition of The Cullman Tribune.

CULLMAN, Ala. – Cullman County offers plenty of opportunities to enjoy or participate in performing arts.  You can often catch live music at evening destinations like Goat Island Brewing, or at numerous celebrations like Oktoberfest and the Strawberry Festival, and while folks debate where it should be, no one can deny the impact of Rock the South on both our economy and local culture.  School-based and Parks and Rec-sponsored Missoula Children’s Theatre programs bring actors to the stage. Dance academies, school bands and choral groups, and the Cullman Community Band round out a something-for-everyone entertainment offering.

Two events in the last year, though, have created new entertainment standards in the Cullman area:

Cullman Community Theatre revived

In May 2018, Cullman High School Theatre Director Wayne Cook and Choral Director Sarah Skinner, along with others, announced their intent to relaunch Cullman Community Theatre.

Just before their first meeting, Cook told The Tribune, “I feel strongly that community theater is an important part of a community like this.  It fills a need, fills a gap (with something) that we currently don’t have. And, with all the things that have happened in this community: the growth, the economic expansion that we’ve seen–we’ve seen growth in so many arenas; that’s the last link, in my view, of what we really need to explore.  And the arts in general, but I specifically come at it from a theater perspective.

“You go to a lot of communities: you go to Decatur, you go to Florence, you go to Huntsville (which) has tons of opportunities for community theater.  Birmingham has gobs of opportunities for community theater. Even places like Arab and Guntersville have community theater groups. So we really need an opportunity for adults and children, and students and people to work alongside each other to do productions in the community.  

“This would be an organization that would–it would obviously be a collaboration with the schools, but this is not a school-sponsored thing.  This will be a community-sponsored thing, and so it’ll have a little different approach, in the sense that we’ll open it up to all ages, all people that want to be a part.”

Shortly after that first meeting, Cullman Community Theatre began holding auditions and, later in the summer, put on its production of “The Music Man.”

After that first production, Cook reflected, “It’s been fun for us, you know, and it’s the beginning of what I hope will be continued community productions, because it gives opportunities to everybody in the community, all ages.  A lot of people who are in this show have reminisced about their high school years or years when they were kids and they were in theater. They talked about they brought it back, and they never thought they’d get to do it again.  That’s what community theater does: it gives people an opportunity to continue something that they love.”

Months later, as he looks to community theater’s future, Cook talked first about the relaunch experience:

“It was a very rewarding experience: tons of support from the community, and a lot of people who seems to be very pleased with this effort.  It seems to have support from all the way around: from Parks and Rec and different organizations that want to help support it.

“And our committee that is steering all this is now trying to decide how do we make it sustainable and what do we do about making it more year-round: how much do we offer, how much do we not offer, at what length do we go with community theater.  There are just limits to resources and people, and so we’re trying to determine how to balance all that.

“And we talked about doing some things during the (school) year.  They just never materialized this year. But the effort right now is to do another summer production.  There is a movement right now, moving toward an additional production that will be presented in the summer, and probably will audition in May, and will rehearse late May, early June–begin rehearsal–and be sometime in July performed.  But the details on that are still kind of being worked out with Parks and Rec and different people who are players in the deal.”

Cook has an idea for this year’s production, but he’s playing that hand close to the vest.  He and his volunteer staff are also working on ideas for more year-round activities for the organization.

Wallace State Theatre offers sensory-friendly production for special needs community

On Oct. 28, 2018, Wallace State Theatre opened a new era in north Alabama stage productions, offering the region’s first sensory-friendly performance to close out a four-day run of “Mary Poppins.”

Show Director Lauren Salerno told The Tribune about her decision to pursue the new course:

“We’ve never done a sensory-friendly production.  It’s definitely on my radar, because a lot of theater companies are starting to do that sort of thing.  I had a mom email me to ask if we were going to do one, because she would like to bring her child, but she had recently been to a performance that wasn’t sensory-friendly, and she didn’t feel that it was a positive experience for her child.  And I thought, ‘Why aren’t we doing that? We should be doing that.’

“I talked to my department chair, and we decided that Sunday afternoon would be a good time to offer that, because it’s a daytime show.  And I can’t imagine that we’ll ever do a production again where we don’t have a sensory-friendly opportunity, because you want everybody to be able to experience theater.  You want everybody to be able to experience the arts. And if people are uncomfortable, or if they feel they’re being judged in any way, that’s not going to happen, and then you feel like you can’t offer them that.”

Much of the responsibility for scaling back the production to ease the experience of the audience fell to the show’s tech crew.  

Technical Director Noah Carpenter shared, “A sensory-friendly show is mainly targeted to audiences who have sensory disorders, or that in one way or another fall onto the spectrum.  The show’s purpose is to take the theater, which so much of the time is an uninviting place to these audiences, and make some small but impactful changes that will help make the show easier for these patrons while not removing any of the art or magic of the show for them.

“As the technical director, a lot of the pieces in a sensory-friendly show do land in my plate.  We do adjustments to lighting to eliminate any strobe lights or bright flashes, we leave the house lights up a little bit to prevent the stage from being too bright and overwhelming for patrons, and then on the sound side everything is turned down just a little and we soften any harsh sound effects like crashes or explosions.  In addition to these things, a sensory-friendly show has a very open-door policy to allow patrons to come and go as they need to if they are overstimulated, and a lot of the house rules are relaxed: patrons are able to interact in the ways that best help them enjoy the show; they can sing along or clap, or anything they need to help them take it all in.  The program is also a little different for a show like this, because we use it as kind of a roadmap for patrons and give warnings about parts of the show that might be overstimulating for certain patrons, and also include character comparisons for our characters compared to who they were in the movie, to cut down on confusion.”

Thinking about the potential impact of this undertaking on audiences, Carpenter shared, “For me, it’s super personal, because I’m extremely dyslexic.  So, to be able to open up theater and know what it’s done in my life; and, if I had not had a theater that opened up to me, I wouldn’t be here talking to you.  So, just for us to be some of the front runners in Alabama, doing that, making that movement for these patrons, is something super special that we’re able to do in the show, also.”

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W.C. Mann