Live United: Working to make sure all people have a voice, a chance

Published 8:45 pm Friday, August 5, 2022

Live United by Erin Haag

Alan Ariano is an actor who recently played the role of the Wizard in Wizard of Oz at Music Theatre of Wichita. He recently shared a story that resonated deep with me. Alan believes he is the first Asian American to play that role in a professional production. For Alan, this was significant, and he worked with the director Debra Walton to incorporate some of his culture into the show. There’s a scene where the Wizard speaks in Tagalog (Filipino language) before catching himself and resuming in English. Alan reports that he heard reactions from the audience telling him that there were those that understood. He wrote, “I couldn’t have been more proud knowing that Filipinos in Wichita, KS witness and saw that someone who looked like them was playing the character of the WIZARD in “The Wizard of Oz”, this American Classic Tale. Thank you Debra, Wayne and MTW for being active in showing diversity in Musical Theatre.”

Erin Haag

Now are you ready for a trip into my past? In 1997 portions of the AIDS Memorial Quilt was on display in my Kansas hometown. My entire family was drafted to volunteer at the event. I remember going to K-Mart with my older sister to buy white jeans that would mark us as volunteers. Turquoise bandanas tied around a volunteer’s arm would signify them as a grief support person. There was a huge convention center, and the quilt blocks were spread out on the floor. My brother and I had the jobs of laying the quilt out. My memory is a bit fuzzy in this area, but I feel like there was a ceremony, and we had a choreographed part to play in laying it out. 

In the theatre next door, there was a show. I remember my mother coming up to me, and she told me that there was a deaf person that was going to attend the show. She knew they had recently lost someone to AIDS and asked if I would be willing to interpret the show for them. I had absolutely no idea what I was getting myself into, but I said yes. She found a black T-shirt, put it on me backwards and basically shoved me on stage with a music stand and a script. OK then. I did the best I could. 

Later that day, I was sitting with Wayne Bryan, producing director of Music Theatre of Wichita. He asked me if I’d ever be willing to interpret again. Again, I had no clue what I was getting into, but I said sure. So I started my theater career — an event that took me on stage in front of 2,500 people for 11 years for 55 different musicals. When I started, I didn’t know what I was getting into. I learned quick though, and throughout the years there, I made every effort to bring accessibility to our theater. I tried my best to blend in with the show, arranging my hair to fit the era of the show, and reflecting the music and mood in how I presented the sign. People began to realize that musicals are enjoyed by many, not just those that can hear the music fully. 

Throughout the years, there were moments when inclusion was recognized. A choreographer having me dance the hambone along with the cast, a lead actress incorporating a meaningful sign into the dance that reflected what I was interpreting at the moment, or the cast signing thank you at the end. I learned to speak up as a type of consultant when I saw something that might be a barrier. Each summer, there were special needs matinees for children with disabilities. I used to provide advice on the show, such as asking them to consider not using strobe lights, which can trigger seizures. Or suggesting that the cats in CATS stare at a point above a child’s head, rather than looking directly at them. Little things, that are huge in the world of disabilities, but commonplace in musicals. 

Then, Wayne Bryan and Deb Walton took it a step further. Yep, that Deb Walton, the director of “Wizard of OZ” that just concluded. In 2004, a production of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” was underway. Deb Walton was the narrator of that story, the character that comes out and lends context to the story. It was decided that as an interpreter, I was also a narrator, and I would be in costume, and I would walk from my corner of the stage and be right beside Deb as she sang, and I signed. I grew up in that theater. I found my corner of the theater and made it my own, and it was thanks to people like Deb and Wayne embracing diversity, inclusion and representation that allowed that to happen. Each summer, I’d meet a child who was deaf. I’d show them my own hearing aids and explain that I was deaf, too. The wonder in their face when they realized that there was a grownup who was deaf — someone who could introduce them to these magical characters to life? Someone who knows Horton the Elephant and Cinderella and Belle? Then there’s the magical ones who learned how to sign “how are you” and “thank you for coming.” You all know how I love magical moments, and that’s big magic right there.  

What does my past life in my hometown states have to do with United Way? It’s because even though I’ve been talking loud and clear about food insecurity, about helping our seniors, about child care, access to health care and the need for our All Together Inclusive Playground — it’s all about inclusion, equity and representation and removing those barriers. Every step of the way, Living United is about being inclusive — being UNITED in our community and making sure everyone has a voice, and everyone has a chance. That includes the opportunity to play, to volunteer, to engage in making our community a better place to live. Call our office at 507-373-8670 or stop by our booth at Safety Night in Morin Park from 4:30-6:30 p.m. on Tuesday. We’d love to show you how being inclusive can bring about some magic. 

So thank you Deb, and Wayne, for being integral parts of my childhood/young adult years and showing how the little things matter the most when it comes to community. Thank you, Alan, for sharing your culture with the audience, and then broadening that impact by sharing your story.  I may not be in the theater world anymore, but the lessons and the magic are carried for a lifetime. 

Erin Haag is the executive director of the United Way of Freeborn County.