Last week, Salt Lake Acting Company launched The Amberlee Fund: Accessibility Elevated, a $1 million capital campaign to completely redesign their theater to make the space more accessible. Fans of SLAC know that the acting company’s one-of-a-kind venue is part of the experience. Located in a 130-year old meeting house for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the physical space told a uniquely Utah story: a religious gathering space in the 19th century became an artistic one in the 20th and 21st. (It helps that the boundary-pushing, edgy plays SLAC tends to produce are about as far from church Christmas pageants as you could possibly imagine.)
This historical building, however, is far from accessible to all visitors. Jason Wheeler, Executive Director of Assist Community Design Center, explained that the building was designed far before legally enforced accessibility codes. In fact, the split-level design with narrow, steep staircases were uniquely challenging for those with disabilities.
SLAC’s campaign is named after Amberlee Hatton-Ward, who was a regular attendee of SLAC’s yearly children’s productions. Amberlee loved attending the theater, but carrying Amberlee and her equipment up the staircase was arduous—Shauna Rasmussen Hatton-Ward enlisted several people to help her daughter attend the show. For the family, bringing Amberlee to SLAC was an annual holiday tradition. They invited Amberlee’s friends to join them and camped out in the green room with hot cocoa for the kids and champagne for the adults. “Attending SLAC’s children’s productions was an experience that made Amberlee laugh out loud and she was always so loved by theater staff, stage crew, and actors … The stage and performances captivated us and let us forget for just a moment, the difficulties of life,” Shauna said in a tribute to her daughter.
After Amberlee passed away in 2019, Shauna hoped to continue Amberlee’s legacy and love of theater. Shauna, along with the leadership at SLAC, recognized that accessibility was the biggest barrier to this mission. So Shauna, along with Capital Campaign Committee Co-Chair Dale Smith, led the initiative to address the building’s barriers. Cynthia Fleming, the Artistic Director of SLAC, called the theater company “a beacon for so many in our community who don’t feel included.” She said that prioritizing accessibility was a way for SLAC to expand that inclusion. She hopes that Amberlee’s “kick-ass spirit and acceptance for all human beings” shines through the project.
At many theaters across Utah and the U.S., COVID-19 has forced companies to halt normal production schedules, allowing for a rare pause and chance for reflection. For SLAC—which has not welcomed in-person audiences for more than a year—the planning and execution of the renovations was made possible by this interruption. “Because we have shows running year-round, undertaking such a project prior to the pandemic would have required us to temporarily present our productions elsewhere,” Fleming explained in a press release. “So in a strange way, this past year’s forced pause in producing live theater—plus the vital support of the Linda and Don Price Fund as well as the legacy of Amberlee—is allowing us to build back and build better.”
Assist Community Design Center will be completely remodeling both the main theater and the dressing rooms, which are in an old Relief Society meeting house adjacent to the main building. The renovations include a wheelchair-accessible elevator from the lobby to the theater and accessible dressing rooms and bathrooms, including an adult changing table. The campaign will also repair earthquake damage and improve infiltration systems throughout the building. (Thanks 2020.) Designers Lauren Bald and Brea Valenzuela of cityhomeCOLLECTIVE will be refreshing the theater’s interior design with fresh, modern decor. (Bald said she wanted to add “an element of naughty” to complement SLAC’s vibrant, playful approach to theater.)
Audience Relationship and Accessibility Coordinator Natalie Keezer explained that accessibility will be a key consideration all of SLAC’s work. The company will continue to use ASL interpreters for live performances and will include closed-captioning, audio descriptions and sensory sensitivity warnings in digital productions. They will also use screen readers, accessible language and image descriptions on their social media pages, marketing materials and updated website.
As of April 28, the capital campaign has already raised $775,000. You can make a donation to the Amberlee Fund online or by calling 801-363-7522. The updates are scheduled to finish this summer, in time for SLAC’s 50th season.
SLAC will be continuing their 2020-21 season with Audrey Cefaly’s Alabaster, which will stream digitally. Director Martine Kei Green-Rogers and the creative team wanted to capture the spirit of live performance, though the production was directed and filmed virtually. Costumes, props, sets, lighting equipment and even a makeup artist were sent to actors’ homes, bridging the gap between film and theater. The play centers on June, an artist in a small Alabama town who is still recovering from a tornado that killed her family, Alice, a photographer who meets June while recovering from her own trauma, and two taking goats, Weezy and Bib. “SLAC is not only embracing those challenges but using them as an opportunity to push the boundaries of digital theater in this tailor-made-for-film production,” said Cefaly in a press release. The production will be streaming on-demand from May 10-30. For tickets and more information, visit SLAC’s website.
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