Wendy Carroll: Casting a light on special needs theater

LISA JAMES/ Press Wendy Carroll poses for a photo Monday morning at the costume shop she runs, Specialized Needs Recreation Costume Shop, in Post Falls. Carroll is also the founder of Out of the Shadows Theater, a program for special needs individuals to participate in full theatrical productions.

Songwriting was a dream Wendy Carroll chased all over North America.

"I went to L.A. because I wanted to write music," she said. "I did get into a scholarship program through ASCAP — the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers ... They would select 20 students a year and mentor them. I was one of the ones that they chose."

She studied under songwriter Arthur Hamilton of "Cry Me a River" fame and learned some tricks of the trade.

"He was still pulling in royalties all those years later," Carroll said. "He was looking pretty good."

While in California, Carroll worked as a producer at Disney Studios. She acted in local theater, learned about show biz and met some interesting people along the way, including a young Bill Murray.

When she met Murray, she and a girlfriend were dining out and kept being served drinks from an unknown source. The waiter told them they were compliments of the gentlemen at the end of the bar, where Murray was seated with a pal.

"It was kind of exciting because it was completely unexpected," Carroll said. "We were just out for dinner and drinks kept showing up on our table."

She and her friend enjoyed an evening hanging out at the house Murray was renting while working on a film, but not before his car wouldn't make it up Mulholland Drive.

"Somebody called for the tow truck to come, and when the guy came, he looks at Bill Murray and goes, ‘Ooh, I know who you are — Dan Aykroyd,'" Carroll said, smiling at the memory. "And he just laughed and went along with it."

Carroll chased songwriting to Music City USA, where she wrote music and taught screenwriting classes. She said she chose Nashville because it was "a place with creative energy" and New York was just not for her.

She pursued music and screenwriting work in Phoenix when her son, Toby, was younger. But then she took her love for the arts and discovered another dream in North Idaho.

Carroll — who is on the Specialized Needs Recreation board and runs the SNR Costume Rentals shop in Post Falls — founded Out of the Shadows Theater, which puts on productions with casts made entirely of disabled and special needs individuals. The theater provides the opportunity for these special actors to take the stage with shadow actors and shine in the spotlight.

It had a successful inaugural season last fall with "Beauty and the Beast Jr." and Carroll and her team are already working on the 2017 production.

"I heard people make the comment, ‘You’ll never get them to do that.’ And they did," Carroll said. "That was pretty exciting. It was rewarding to give them an outlet."

• • •

How did Out of the Shadows Theater all come about?

“I had had it in mind for a few years, and it really comes down to my son. He would sit through all of my auditions and rehearsals and performances. He’d work bringing water to the actors and being a part of the theater community and they totally embraced him. Everybody in the theater community knows who he is. One night, I was auditioning, and I looked at the theater, the few people here and there, and he was one of them. He was always sitting there smiling. I looked at him and thought, he’s thinking, ‘When’s it my turn?’ All the times I’ve dragged him to these things and he’s always happy, but how many times has he thought, ‘I’d like to do that.’ And no one would ever give him the chance. And I thought, ‘How do I answer that?’ I can’t say I don’t know because I do know it’s whenever I make it happen.

“So I started thinking about how something like that could be accomplished and I did some research, I found other groups in the country who did similar things and I thought, ‘Well, it’s totally doable.’ So we just launched into it. That was probably three or four years ago. I knew this community would get behind it. The people in this community are very willing and generous and very happy to volunteer. And this relies very much on volunteerism.”

What are some rewards of the work you do, from Out of the Shadows to being a board member for SNR?

“I think that because my son has disabilities, I’m always looking for ways to educate the public to raise their expectations and to be more accepting and tolerant. It’s rewarding to me when I can work on programs that draw the public in. When we did Out of the Shadows Theater, that was one of the greatest moments, just watching people who heretofore hadn’t been involved with people with special needs become involved — I’m talking about our shadow actors, our production team — pretty much none of them had any prior experience with special needs people. They all told me it was life-changing and they all wanted to do it again next year. It was really cool when I heard people talking about 'next year.' I won’t have to reinvent the wheel next year, they’ve already committed.”

Have you had any challenges with the costume shop or the theater?

“No. The theaters have been wonderful about donating costumes to us and using our costumes in their productions. They’ve been supportive. It’s been a very cooperative venture. When we did ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ Coeur d’Alene Summer Theatre allowed us to use a lot of their costumes, which helped considerably. CST was hugely involved in our production in terms of making things available to us. Spokane Civic Theatre and the North Idaho College Theatre Department were also significant in their support. They all were very, very good.”

When and how did you personally start in theater?

“My first play was when I was in college. I got involved in Vancouver for a few years in their community college. When I went to Los Angeles, I got cast in a play but I wasn’t happy with it when it was over with. It’s a different vibe in L.A. Those are actors who are trying to build a career and they want their agents to come and see their performances and I felt guilty because I was just doing it for pleasure. At the time I did it I was on staff at Disney Studios as a producer, so it wasn’t my goal to promote my acting career. I didn’t have an acting ambition; I just felt like it was not right for me to take that space from people who were pinning their hopes on this and I should step down and let somebody else. I’d stepped away from theater the whole time I was in L.A. after that.

“Then when I got to Nashville, I got involved again because I didn’t know anybody in town and I know the theater community is a very tight-knit friendly group, so I thought, ‘Well, that’s one way to make a lot of friends fast. We’ll have a shared interest.’ And it was, it was a great idea. Then I went to Phoenix and I didn’t do any theater there because I was my son’s sole caregiver and it was just too hard on him for me to be gone that much and I couldn’t take him with me, it wouldn’t work for him time-wise. I had to put acting on the shelf until he was old enough to come with me to the theater. He was about 18 or 19. I did a play at Lake City Playhouse, I did ‘Steel Magnolias.’ And you know, theater will hook you in. That was the start of it again.”

How did you get on with Disney?

“The thing with Disney was interesting because as we noted earlier, I didn’t have a degree in anything. Then, as now, that is the golden ticket, you must have a degree to do anything. I took whatever job they would offer, I just wanted my foot in the door. I had been given that advice to take whatever job you’re offered; it’s a way to get in. So I took a job as an administrative assistant in the marketing department and made friends with the right people. When a production assistant job opened up in producing educational film, I got the job and then within less than a year I was promoted to producer. I had been told the year before that I could not count on any promotion within the company because I didn’t have that degree and it just wasn’t going to happen, so I was pretty proud when it happened. It was like, ‘Really? Well, I’m here and I have an office with a window and I have business cards that say ‘producer,’ so, so much for degrees.’ It was good fortune and knowing the right people along the way and knowing people who were willing to mentor me."

How long were you in Arizona? Did you come to North Idaho from there?

“I did, and while I was there I was continuing with the screenwriting seminars. I would do two or three a year. I came up here (to North Idaho) — best move I ever made. It was July 2005. I should have moved here 20 years ago. I told my son that, the second day we were here, I said, ‘Why didn’t we move here when you were a baby?’ It’s heaven here. We moved here because I wanted to be closer to the border, my family all lived in Canada and I wanted to be able to visit them on a whim, just get in the car and go, and that was a novelty to us.

“I was drawn to Coeur d’Alene because my neighbors back in Los Angeles for a number of years were Ellen Travolta and Jack Bannon. They lived down the street from me. Then once or twice a year I’d talk to them on the phone and they kept telling me that Coeur d’Alene is this heaven on Earth wonderful place, so I came through here on a road trip and had lunch with them and drove around. I thought, ‘If I ever need to live close to the border, this is the place I would go.’ So here I am.”

With all of your industry experience, what does it mean to you to be able to create Out of the Shadows Theater and help the special needs community shine?

“It was entirely every bit as rewarding as I anticipated it would be. They exceeded my expectations. I know a lot of them personally, not all of them, but it was delightful to see them stepping outside of their normal patterns and doing things that many people said that they would never do ... See, you’ve got Special Olympics, and that’s great, except not everybody’s athletic. But when that’s all you’re offered, they show up for bowling and skiing, and they do it but that’s not their heart. There’s no other options for them. There’s no other programs for them outside of Special Olympics and as good as it is, it doesn’t address people who have an artistic bend.

“So I thought if we do this, there’s an alternative. They can do both, certainly, but at least they have a chance to explore their artistic side. I mean, I know I was that kid who didn’t care about sports. I feel like a lot of these guys felt compelled to do it because that was their social life. But now that we’ve done this play, they were all over us even before this play closed. They wanted to know what we were going to do next. I couldn’t go into a room without them mobbing me — ‘What’s our next show? What are we going to do? When do we start? I want to be in it!’ I said, ‘You’re all in it, anyone who wants to be in it is in it, it’s just a matter of where we’re going to put you.’ We’re not turning down anybody."

What lies ahead for Out of the Shadows Theater?

“We want to do at least one production a year going forward. I don’t know if we’d ever do twice a year, but I’m open to it, it’s going to depend on the response from the community. How much time do they want to put into it? I’d like to see Out of the Shadows grow into an annual event people all know about and associate with SNR, that I won’t have to explain what it is and people will know what it is. I’d like that to be a signature event every year that people anticipate, that they know is coming, both for the audience and for the actors so they have an outlet for their artistic expression … I like the idea that we can give people who’ve not had the chance the opportunity to explore their artistic expression and be rewarded for it, have audience feedback and be recognized.”

BIO BOX

Born and raised: Saskatchewan, Canada; Calgary, Vancouver

Birthday: Sept. 25

Family: 27-year-old son, Toby; two sisters; cat Frisky, dog Sadie

Education: Studied journalism at Mount Royal in Calgary

Favorite color: Red

Favorite book: “The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All”

Historical person you admire: Eleanor Roosevelt

Favorite music/artist: Barbra Streisand

Personal mantra or philosophy: There’s room for everybody

Best advice you’ve ever been given: Take whatever job you’re offered – just get your foot in the studio door!

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