Shrek’s friend Donkey had fallen down a flight of stairs. He had no understudy. “I just got the call,” sighed Sam, the founder of Detour Company Theatre. “I hope he’s okay. If he isn’t, we’ll figure something out.”
It had been that kind of day. Earlier that morning, Shrek’s mother had phoned her. “She said he had a fever of 101,” explained Sam, who like Cher and Lulu goes by just the one name. “I said he needed to rest and feel better. We open in three days. We may have to replace him.”
At rehearsal the next afternoon, a man paced the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts stage, script in hand, a substitute ogre in Shrek: The Musical, David Lindsay-Abaire’s tuner based on the animated movie. The production was the latest from Detour, a troupe for adults with disabilities like autism, cerebral palsy, or Down syndrome. The fake Shrek stopped to speak to a tall woman holding a rubber ax. She smiled at something he said, then raised the ax over her head and shook it.
“You all look darling!” yelled Sam in a high, reedy voice into the crowded stage chatter. Everyone applauded. Sam turned to a woman next to her who wore a giant gingham dirndl. “When that dress comes off, you go right to your spot and just stand there,” she explained, and the woman nodded.
“Quiet!” peeped Sam, who wore her long hair yanked back in a ponytail and heavy glasses perched on her nose. While she wandered the stage giving directions and pointing, a man dressed as a cow demanded hugs from each of his castmates. This was Christopher, Sam’s son, born with brain damage in the 1970s.
“He didn’t think that should keep him off the stage,” said Sam, who went on to found Detour nearly two decades ago. Last spring, she was given a Governor’s Arts Award for her work with the company.
A man dressed as a wolf wearing a house dress followed Sam around the stage. “Sit here,” she told him. “No, wait. Wrong chair. Go sit on the other side of the stage.”
People told her all the time that she was doing important work, Sam had admitted to an acquaintance the day before. “I ask the actors why they want to be here, and they always say because they want to perform,” she had tried to explain. “No flowery statements about the importance of the work. Just ‘We want to be here.’”
Now she called to her actors. “I need storybook people! I don’t see any storybook characters up here.” She turned to a girl in a blue pinafore. “Victoria, you look darling!” Victoria pirouetted, and her skirt spun. Behind her, Pinocchio struggled with his nose. An actor stood near the lip of the stage, rehearsing his lines. “You think I like this job?” he demanded of an invisible person. “I’m a glorified babysitter!”
“All right, quiet!” Sam peeped. “Go, Shrek!” While Shrek warbled a song about how the world isn’t a great place, but it belonged to him, villagers wandered past. “Do not sit down!” Sam yelped to the villagers. “You are scrunched into the middle!”
A woman in the front row of theater seats groaned. “Go with your coach!” she yelled at a younger woman up on stage, who ignored her. Another actress picked up a wicker basket from the edge of the stage and handed it to someone named Alissa. The two women touched foreheads and giggled.
“We’re a theater that’s about supporting one another,” Sam had told an old friend earlier in the week. “We may not have a Shrek or a Donkey on opening night. But you do the best you can and you keep going.”
The wolf in the house dress wandered into the audience, where he stood before the front row and struck jujitsu poses. Christopher, his cow head under his arm, pointed upward. “Lights!” he hollered to the back of the house. “We need more lights!”