With Accessibility At Its Heart, SLAC “Builds Back and Builds Better”
Activism, Outreach and Education
Salt Lake Acting Company’s (SLAC) theater is housed in a 130-year-old former Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints ward house, which both adds character and creates limitations in accessibility. Although making the building more accessible by installing an elevator to the Upstairs Theatre was a dream, the building’s age “always seemed like an excuse not to,” says Cynthia Fleming, SLAC’s Executive Artistic Director. However, through its partnerships with ASSIST Inc Community Design Center and cityhomeCOLLECTIVE, they used the pandemic-related shutdowns to “build back and build better” and make these dreams come true, Fleming says.
At the heart of this project is Amberlee Hatton-Ward and the safe space live theater provided her. Alongside her mother, Shauna Rasmussen Hatton-Ward, she attended SLAC’s holiday children’s production every year. However, Amberlee used a wheelchair as a means of mobility, and while Shauna “moved mountains to provide Amberlee with access to productions throughout Salt Lake City … access/accessibility was very much an obstacle,” Fleming says.
Despite these barriers, Shauna brought family and friends every year to help carry Amberlee into the Upstairs Theatre. She says that not only was this a holiday tradition, but “it was by far the most precious way [Amberlee] could express herself, in her limited condition of confinement, and it will always be one of the fondest memories we have.”
“SLAC used the pandemic-related shutdowns to ‘build back and build better.'”
With its mission to engage and enrich the community through theater, the nonprofit acting company wanted to memorialize Amberlee after she passed away in 2019 by eliminating the building’s accessibility barriers. However, SLAC first had to assess if it was even possible, which is when the nonprofit ASSIST Inc was brought into the picture to restructure the building’s layout. The accessibility-focused design rm reconfigured SLAC’s physical space to accommodate an elevator alongside a remodeled lobby and box office area, a newly created accessible restroom on the lobby level, modified restrooms on the lower level and renovated dressing room facilities. “It was an intricate game of Tetris,” Fleming says, “but the final elevator placement is perfect; you can have access to the Upstairs Theatre from anywhere in the building. ASSIST managed to make it all work masterfully. We can’t thank them enough.”
SLAC then turned to cityhomeCOLLECTIVE, a real estate and interior design firm, to further execute the project. “Not only is their product gorgeous, their values of equity, inclusivity and community are much aligned with SLAC’s,” Fleming says. More importantly, cityhomeCOLLECTIVE created an audience-focused design based on the principle that “home is in the eye of the beholder,” says Lauren Bald, the firm’s Design Director. Helping SLAC and its “home” was exactly what she says they were trying to do. “These guys are the ultimate in going bold, taking chances and trusting the process …,” Bald says. “It’s so fun to work with fellow creatives on a space and [to] really help tell the story of SLAC through the medium of design. We all really wanted the personality and boldness of what SLAC does on stage to be reflected in their ‘home.’ And I like to think we’ve done that.”
“It’s so fun to work with fellow creatives on a space and [to] really help tell the story of SLAC through the medium of design.”
In addition to the theater’s physical improvements, SLAC is also redesigning its website to make it more accessible for those with visual and auditory disabilities. “These improvements will ensure SLAC’s further longevity as being a destination in the community for bold, contemporary theater, and importantly, to feel a sense of community …,” Fleming says. “[SLAC’s] intention moving forward is to be people-centric over art-centric.”
In the end, the three organizations worked together to create a safe space, as SLAC did with Amberlee, only more accessible this time. “Our love and gratitude will always shine upon SLAC for embracing all individuals with various hardships and difficulties and providing a temporary shelter of love and joy during every performance,” Shauna says.
The remodeled space will be unveiled during the kickoff of the 50th season lineup at the end of September with Elaine Jarvik’s Four Women Talking About the Man Under the Sheet. Find more information at saltlakeactingcompany.org.