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The Madison Record

Unexpected Company Theatre tells Wright Brothers’ story in sensory-inclusive show

MADISON – A new theatre group in Madison that will present sensory-inclusive shows to entertain a wider audience.

Melissa Rice and six other actors have formed the musical theatre troupe, Unexpected Company Theatre. “We’re in rehearsal for our very first show, ‘Wright! Celebrate the Beginning of Flight,’ a short musical about the Wright Brothers first flight,” Rice said.

“The production by John Jacobson and Roger Emerson is designed for an audience of individuals with developmental disabilities by making it ‘sensory-inclusive,’ allowing audience participation with props, singing and dancing, while being mindful of sensory sensitivities,” Rice said.

“This first production will be a true pilot production (no pun intended!),” Rice said. “We’ll use what we learn from it to create other sensory-inclusive shows in the future and hope to offer these shows to a wider range of individuals within the community.”

Show times for “Wright! Celebrate the Beginning of Flight” will be Feb. 12 at 1 p.m. and 2:15 p.m. in the James Clemens High School Auditorium. “This show will play to a small, invited audience of students from the high school and individuals served by local non-profit organization, EPIC or Exceptional People in Community,” Rice said.

Unexpected Company Theatre has partnered with the Best Buddies club and teacher sponsor Michelle Hyams at James Clemens and EPIC with Executive Director Kathy Burris. Best Buddies will greet, usher and show role-model participation for the audience. EPIC is providing funding and rehearsal space. Michael Merritt’s students in James Clemens Theatre participate in the tech crew.

Unexpected Company Theatre has evolved from Rice raising her son, Zachary, who has autism. “His hearing sensitivity and attention difficulties prohibit him from enjoying typical theatre productions,” Rice said. “He loves music and dance but finds most theatrical experiences overwhelming. This broke my heart as he was growing up because my background is in theatre, and I wanted to share the magic of it all with him.”

Rice has dreamed of the project more than a decade after learning about Red Kite Project at Chicago Children’s Theatre. “I decided it was time to do something about it during the shutdown in early 2020, as we saw arts and activities close up,” she said.

Because opportunities for individuals with special needs already are limited, Rice was urgent to open this theatre. Partnering with Best Buddies at James Clemens and EPIC expedited Unexpected Company Theatre’s launch its first production. Company member Amber Eckenrode has worked with adults with disabilities and advocates for extending social and arts opportunities.

Unexpected Company Theatre’s mission is “True community theatre.” The group provides accessible opportunities for Madison in both theatre-making and theatre viewing in unexpected ways.

Participants in “Wright! Celebrate the Beginning of Flight” are actors Isabella King, Angela Moore and Randy Crouse; Director Melissa Rice; actor and Musical Director Cathy Altonji; actor and Sensory Experience Advisor Amber Eckenrode; and actor and Choreographer Emma Hall.

Unexpected Company Theatre rehearses at EPIC’s office at 8006 Old Madison Pike, Unit 20K in Madison on Monday and Thursday from 6 to 8 p.m. and Saturday from 10 a.m. to noon. This fall, the group hopes to present “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat”; if fundraising isn’t sufficient, they will produce a smaller Christmas musical.

“Our sensory-inclusive productions cater to individuals who have hearing and visual sensitivities. Individuals with sensory processing disorders, autism and other developmental disabilities may enjoy these specially-designed shows,” Rice said.

Audience accommodations include low volumes, gentle lighting changes, interactive props and a “quiet room.”

For more information, email unexpectedcompanytheatre@gmail.com or visit unexpectedcompanytheatre.org, Facebook/Unexpected Company Theatre or Instagram: @unexpectedcompanytheatre.

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