Friendship Theatre rehearsal

Friendship Theatre offers stage for people with disabilities


It takes actors, script helpers, costume designers, set designers,  handlers and concession volunteers to put on a production at the Friendship Theatre

In the wee hours of a summer night in her Washington home, Darlene Ruckwardt could hear her daughter Michelle whispering and singing in her room.

“The Wells Fargo wagon just pulled up from the depot,” she said, voice getting stronger. “The Wells Fargo wagon just pulled up from the depot!”

For months, Michelle practiced punching up the emotion in those words – her lines as Gracie Shinn, the mayor’s daughter in the play the Music Man. After 10 months of practice, she delivered them onstage in the Friendship Theatre performance of the Music Man June 20th through June 24th at the Knutzen Family Theatre in Federal Way.

More than 40 actors – and at least as many script helpers, costume designers, set designers, handlers and concession volunteers – performed in the play.

Most are repeat performers: Michelle, who has Down syndrome, has acted in the troupe for 13 years.

“Michelle is so cute because of this line she had in this play and how she says it. We tell her, you have to be expressive,” said Director Sharon Boyle. “We got to practice one night and she stops me: ‘Sharon,’ she said. ‘Yes, Michelle?’”

“‘I can do it.’”

A big commitment

Boyle has been directing plays with the Friendship Theatre program at the City of Federal Way Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services department for nine years. Before then, she produced plays for the city of Kent. The seasons are a big commitment, beginning with practices in September and ending with fully-produced performances in June.

“It is fun to be involved with all of the other families,” said Darlene, Michelle’s mother. “It is fun to be able to show that they are so capable. They can be challenged and rise to the challenge.”

  • Michelle Ruckwardt belts out a tune during dress rehearsal of Friendship Theatre's production of "The Music Man."
  • Darlene Ruckwardt, whose adult daughter is a regular cast member of Friendship Theatre's productions, helps out backstage making props.
  • JC Gumm leads the cast of Friendship Theatre's production of "The Music Man" during a recent dress rehearsal.
  • Eleven-year old Maverick McCarl waits for his cue while standing offstage.
  • Director Sharon Boyle gives instructions during a dress rehearsal of Friendship Theatre's production of "The Music Man".

Friendship Theatre is a chance for Boyle to take part in her love for theater, too – something she was too tired to try as a student. In the late 1990s, with her own children grown and time on her hands, she volunteered.

“I wasn’t sure what to expect when I went,” she said. “My expectations going in were kind of blurry because I hadn’t worked with special needs kids. But a shy girl took my hand … they were so open and inviting.”

And so began their very first production: a collection of scenes from Grease. From there, the theater group put on classics: Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella and Annie.

Year-long effort

As time went by, Boyle felt like the students could tackle longer, more complex projects. The theater program went from being a seasonal effort to a year-long one, beginning with play selection in July, weekly practices in September, twice-weekly practices in spring, and finally ramping up to daily practice and dress rehearsals in June.

“It’s my love, and I know a lot of the kids enjoy things like that. They enjoy singing and acting. I love it; they love it; why not?” she said.

Another long-time Friendship Theatre actor is JC Gumm, who landed the enviable lead role as con man Harold Hill. In the play, Gumm carries the iconic suitcase of the traveling salesman, labeled “Professor Harold Hill,” and leads the troupe in a spirited choreographed performance of “Ya Got Trouble.”

On the first dress rehearsal night while his fellow stars were changing costumes, Gumm stood in the shadows of the curtains and contemplated what his experience as an actor means to him.

He admits that he gets nervous, even when the theater is empty. But it doesn’t stop him, he said. He hopes nerves don’t stop anyone else.

“Go for your dreams. If you want to be an actor, go for it. Act,” Gumm said. “Don’t let anyone get you down.”

Sense of confidence

It is that sense of confidence and personal success that has made Friendship Theatre an important fixture in her life, Boyle said.

“What I really enjoy is when they have accomplished it in the end, and they are taking their bows, you can see in their faces that they are proud of what they’ve done,” she said. “It is kind of what it is about: giving them that moment in their life.”

For more information on the Friendship Theatre, contact the City of Federal Way Parks, Recreation, and Cultural Services Department at

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *