“I love storytelling. I love a good story. I love theater’s ability to tell a story in the moment and the power that an artist possesses to make choices in that moment, and the connection between artist and audience in that moment,” said tony sanders, Shine! Theatre director and Arts and Humanities Advisory Board (AHAB) member.
The way sanders tells his story is serendipitous. An interweaving of happenstances that brought him to this place at this time. It’s a story that is more about connections with people who open opportunities than a resume list of accomplishments—his willingness to follow his heart and take the path presented to him.
While sanders was working towards his BFA in acting at the University of Arts in Philadelphia, he became curious about the production side of theatre.
“My senior year, I spent half of my time working as a production coordinator for the school of theatre — which was a position that didn’t exist. I created it,” said sanders.
In that position, he learned about set design and how to hire people for costuming and sound. He handled all of the production aspects and acted at the same time. After graduating, he was hired as the production coordinator for the university, a position that previously didn’t exist. A few years later, he left Philadelphia and spent some time working in the San Francisco theatre scene before moving to Los Angeles to become the Serendipity Children’s theatre manager. Through that work under artistic director Dr. Katy Realista, sanders expanded into teaching, directing and writing. He also picked up a second job as a teaching artist with the Imagination Company, the largest theatre-in-education company in the United States.
Through his work in children’s theatre, sanders was able to get his Actors’ Equity Association card. The Actors’ Equity Association is the stage actor’s union of choice, sanders said. It’s very tough to get into, and actors can’t work on Broadway unless they are members.
“I got my equity card from children’s theatre in Los Angeles. Could there be a more convoluted way? The rest of my friends are all in New York working their tails off and not having any success in that direction,” said sanders, who is also a member of SAG-AFTRA (the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists).
In 2005, sanders founded Shine! Theatre Company, a non-profit organization in Los Angeles. In 2010, Shine! received the Irene Ward Award as the Most Outstanding New Children’s Theatre. The company was honored with a proclamation by Congresswoman Diane Watson on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives.
sanders later moved Shine! to Fresno and established Camp Shine! and the Lil’ Sunshine summer camp. He currently serves as artistic director for the company. In addition to Shine!, sanders is currently the director of VAPA Integration and performance at Big Picture Elementary School. He also serves on the College of Arts and Humanities Advisory Board (AHAB) and chairs the development committee.
sanders’ impact on the local theatre scene has been notable since he arrived in Fresno.
“tony has been a champion for almost every theatre program in Fresno, including our [Fresno State Theatre and Dance] department, as well as StageWorks Fresno, Good Company Players, and of course his own theater company Shine!,” said J. Daniel Herring, professor, director and Theatre and Dance Department chair. “He has either acted, taught classes/workshops or directed in a variety of theatre companies in the Fresno area.”
With a long list of roles, productions and playwrights to his credit, sanders is most proud of his sensory-friendly theatre performances for children on the autism spectrum. With each production, Shine! includes one sensory-friendly offering.
“We make any necessary adjustments that we have to to make sure that we are being sensitive to their needs,” sanders said.
He explained that during the performance, the house lights stay on, there is no applause, and any lighting effects are toned down or removed from the show. Also, seats are situated so people can come and go throughout the performance if needed.
He added, “If a child is triggered, specialists are right there to work with mom and dad or to bring the child out if need be. Then we have a sensory room set up in another part of the theatre so they can still watch the show.”
He said the feedback he has received from the parents is fantastic. They appreciated the ability to bring their children to the theatre without worrying about being ostracized if their child acts out.
But the experience is also personally rewarding and gratifying to the actors involved. In every show, sanders enjoys watching the actors as the experience unexpectedly moves them.
Like many things in his life, sanders said he first learned about sensory theatre by chance. While interviewing a young woman for a resident stage manager position, she talked about her work at Dallas Children’s Theatre with sensory-friendly performances. Eager to learn more, sanders connected with the woman who wrote the program for the sensory theatre project in Dallas and learned the ins and outs before bringing it back to Fresno.
No one in sander’s family is on the spectrum that manifests itself. He does not have a personal connection to autism, it was something the universe put in front of him, and he seized the opportunity to make the world a better place.
That same generosity is also manifested in his work with the Arts and Humanities Advisory Board (AHAB) and his donations to the Dean’s Council Annual Fund.
sanders is the chair of the AHAB development committee, so he can see exactly how the Dean’s Council funds are used. He is especially excited when students get the opportunity to expand beyond the classroom and explore the experience of learning.
“I love that it provides means and access for students who otherwise might now have it. To gain educational opportunities in ways that are unique to them, and grow them out,” he said.
He explained the results could have exponential effects. “That drop is a drop in a pond and the ripple that flows out. We will never fully know the extent of our influence. Maybe one student will come up to us and talk about how it influenced them directly, but we will never know where that ends because they will do work that extends out and impacts others, and those people will do work that impacts others, and it’s going to keep going.”
But beyond the benefits to students and the wider community, he said giving is also personally gratifying.
“It feels great [to give]. It’s awesome,” explained sanders. “I know with 100 percent confidence that it’s going to do a whole lot of good. Where are you guaranteed that sort of return on your donation dollars?”