The Guthrie Theater's special sign-language performances of "A Christmas Carol" were in the rearview mirror when Hunter Gullickson got a phone call recently: Could the Guthrie provide an interpreter for a single hearing-impaired student to see the show?
He didn't blink. He quickly put a three-person team together — one interpreter for a preshow session to help the student get familiar with the set and props, and two more to relay the performance.
Gullickson is the theater's access manager. His job is to make sure that patrons with special needs can experience the 30 or so plays, musicals, concerts and other offerings at the Guthrie each year.
He views it as a calling — an opportunity to "fulfill a desire."
That's especially important during the holidays, as "A Christmas Carol" draws tens of thousands of people to the riverfront theater.
Honored last year by the Ordway Center's Sally Awards for helping people with special needs to partake in cultural amenities, Gullickson heartily oversees the Guthrie's efforts to accommodate patrons with vision or hearing issues, service dogs or wheelchairs. The Guthrie recently staged its first "relaxed performance" aimed at theatergoers with autism or dementia.
Disability advocates know him well.
"What makes Hunter so special is that he goes above and beyond the letter of the law to serve us," said Rachel Parker, a retired disability advocate who lost her vision decades ago and is a frequent user of the theater's audio description service.
"If a school is supposed to make programs accessible to students with disabilities — say, blindness — they might put things on tape and say it's accessible. They don't say to the person: What would be your preference? Hunter does that. And he'll get the program on tape, but also in Braille."
Gullickson is well-versed in the art of assisted listening devices that clarify sound and cut down on ambient noises. He stays up to date on the latest open captioning technology. He trains audio describers in how to effectively translate plays to help vision-impaired patrons picture the costumes, scenery and action of a show.
A quiet, self-effacing introvert, Gullickson avoids the limelight. And he is reluctant to talk about his growing reputation and the honors that have come to the Guthrie for its leadership in this area. Recently, the University of Minnesota honored him and Sue Kotila, the theater's director of visitor services, for their work.
But his influence reaches the whole community, said Jon Skaalen of VSA Minnesota, a nonprofit that works to make art more accessible for people with disabilities. "The Guthrie was an early adopter. But Hunter has taken it to a whole new level."
The theater lends or rents its equipment to about 50 organizations in the Twin Cities.
"The Guthrie provides the little suitcases with a dozen audio description receivers for cheap or nothing," Skaalen said. "It's one of those services that the Guthrie and Hunter wouldn't talk about, but it's a huge resource for groups in the community that can't spend a thousand bucks for that equipment. They are easily the best resource in town for accessibility."
His light bulb moment
Gullickson gently deflects these words of praise: "It's how it should be."
"This is not something that we do because it's special, but because it's ordinary," he said. "Everyone should have access to what we have to offer."
Gullickson, 39, came to his calling in a roundabout way. Growing up as the middle of three children in Altoona, Wis., a town built around a railroad stop and known today for a man-made lake of the same name, he thought he might go into music.
He started playing in drum-and-bugle corps in grade school — and still does today, drumming for competitive bagpipers — then got hooked on theater during his freshman year at Hamline University. He got an internship in the Guthrie's box office.
He loved to see the light in patrons' eyes when they picked up their tickets. He also learned to de-escalate situations and calm down upset patrons.
As he saw it, people came to the theater in search of a transporting or entertaining experience. His job was to usher them there.
"All of this is service work — it's about taking care of people," he said.
Gullickson rose to box office manager before becoming head of accessibility services 10 years ago.
He likes to focus on service as a way of extending grace. It's a flip side to a haunting loss. He and his wife, Guthrie props manager Sarah Gullickson, are raising two children. But they lost a son who was stillborn. And a few years ago, his younger brother died by suicide.
Tragedies "are part of life," he said. But they also fuel his passion as a proselytizer for ensuring the civil rights of those with disabilities.
"It's pretty simple," he said. "Do what you can to help people realize their goals or dreams."