A first in accessible children’s theater

The cast of Aquinas Theatre’s latest production: “Big Smoke” by Finegan Kruckemeyer.

Story by Yashowanto Ghosh, Reporter

Photos courtesy of Sierra Mason with AQ Theatre

AQ Theatre broke new ground in accessibility with its first show of this semester, Big Smoke, which played at the Aquinas College Performing Arts Center from Thursday, Feb 24 to Sunday, Feb 27.

The play, by Australian playwright Finegan Kruckemeyer, features two children as its protagonists, Bethany (played by junior Grace VanHaitsma) and Jamie (played by sophomore Hannah Morey) and tells the story of their adventures when they have a day off from school.  The rest of the cast are seniors Zach Avery, Fatima Bawah, and Breanne Blackwell, junior Desiray Williams, and freshman Megan Schnipke, each of whom play multiple characters.  The production brings the stage alive with AQ Theatre’s customary technical and artistic excellence within the scope of a 45-minute children’s play.

But the bigger story about this show is that it is a landmark in accessible children’s theater. The production is the end product of a much larger project by the director, Professor Scott Harman. Harman wrote a successful proposal for a National Endowment for the Arts grant almost two years ago, with the idea of a children’s theater that was built from the beginning for audiences with diverse abilities, as opposed to adjusting a production with accommodations as and when necessary for an occasional performance.  He ran a class, TE 384 Theatre for Young Audiences, with this production as one of its main goals (but not its only goal—the class also covers ways of using theater as an instrument of pedagogy in a youth classroom).  The entire cast consists of  students in TE 384.

Character leads “Jaime” (Hannah Morey) and “Bethany” (Grace VanHaitsma).

Professor Harman brought in an expert of accessible theater, Dr. Megwyn Sanders-Andrews, for a week-long residency where she helped the production incorporate elements of accessibility in as many ways as possible.  For example, the set, which is a skyline of the city where Bethany and Jamie live, includes a screen where the script scrolls for you to read. There are key moments throughout the play where the characters sign their lines in American Sign Language. There is a space set aside for viewers who might need a sensory break in the middle of the show.  The Sunday matinee show featured an ASL interpreter.

And that’s not all:  The NEA grant will also allow the production to go on the road, with performances for young audiences at several local venues. 

Meanwhile, AQ Theatre’s next and final show of the semester will be a musical, Head Over Heels, which will be at the PAC at 7:30 p.m. on April 7–9 and at 2:30 p.m. on April 10.