Mason Hembree

Ever since 2017 The Spotlight Playhouse has had a friendly giant present at nearly every single performance. It’s not a director or a manager, but an usher with a heart as big as his stature. Mason has ushered thousands of people over the last 7 years and is widely recognized when out and about in Berea. One might think his towering height and large frame would be the reason, but I know it’s more.  

If you have ever had the pleasure of being ushered by Mason you know he will give you 100% of his attention and will walk you to your seat, make sure you are satisfied, and will leave you with a courteous “Enjoy the show”. If he doesn’t recognize you, he may even ask what brings you to the playhouse. This attention to detail sometimes has slowed down the seating process at Spotlight, but happy customers are the best customers, and Mason’s efforts to provide good service are never taken for granted.

Mason will be heading to college this fall and his seven-year run of being at every performance is nearing an end. I will be looking for a replacement for Mason at the Playhouse and it may take multiple people to fill his big shoes. Before I start the search for a new usher, I thought it would be fitting to share a little bit of Mason’s story, because where one person might see a polite attentive usher, I see a young man who has overcome incredible odds.

Mason was always a very intelligent child with a wild imagination and endless energy. He enjoyed traveling, seeing, and learning about new places. He was always ready for a road trip. We discover Mason was gifted on these road trips where he would know way more facts than a preschool child should about the palaces we traveled to. To entertain himself he would make up games in the car and his mother and I quickly learned we would have trouble keeping up with his thirst for knowledge. Mason invented a game where he would tell us to describe an episode of the cartoon Tom & Jerry and he would tell us the name of the episode, the number in the series, and many more facts. He repeated this game for more shows, and I must admit I worried he was getting too much screen time, but in retrospect, it was much less than the average kid gets now.

We enrolled Mason in a program at Eastern Kentucky University where he underwent extensive IQ and other testing before through Kindergarten, and he was indeed scoring very high, but there were some other issues starting to arise, especially in a traditional school setting. Mason enjoyed being at EKU or we would have stopped it, but he was really struggling in his public school. His Kindergarten teacher was kind but never “clicked” with Mason out of the struggle to keep him occupied and on task frustration led to Mason carrying the stigma of “bad kid”. This stigma was passed on to subsequent teachers and until the third grade we had so many visits to the school, we were really at our wit’s end.  In one instance I was called to the school only to find Mason locked in a classroom all by himself as all the other students were in the hall. We never got a fully coherent explanation of how this situation got to this point, but apparently, the catalyst was that Mason could not get a project completed perfectly in the time that was allotted.

My wife is a public school teacher, and we did not want any issues with the school or to be at odds with other teachers, so we took Mason to a psychologist and enrolled him in therapy. The therapy seemed to help and the psychologist tested Mason and said he was on the Autism spectrum and had ADHD. Mason was prescribed medication, and this continued until 6th grade. During this time Mason’s personality changed. He was very recluse, became a homebody, and had no desire to play sports or participate in theater. He did remain active with music but on his own. The school trouble dissipated, and he was going through the motions, but not very happy. Fortunately, Mason’s love for school holds his memory of early grade school much fonder than we remember it to be and despite any issues, he always wanted to go to school. The medicated years leading up to Middle School were not that way as Mason lost his desire to go and was bored.

Chad, Letha, and Mason Hembree

It was at the point Mason stopped liking school that we decided to try something else. It was very expensive, but we took Mason to a neurologist and insisted on testing despite insurance resisting any payment. The diagnosis, Tourette Syndrome. Sure, Mason maybe somewhere on the Autism spectrum, and he may have even had the symptoms of ADHD, but for years we had been treating the wrong things. We immediately dropped the ADHD medications and started focusing on the main issue. Now instead of fighting what we learned were ticks, we let them run their course and when they finish focus is not an issue.

Mason began to like school again and quickly rose to be a very good student. Mason also began acting again and in 2017 as a middle schooler, he became one of the consistent reoccurring detectives in The Spotlight Playhouse Murder Mystery Dinner Shows. Mason fit in with the adult acting troupe because of his size, already over 6’ tall, and he was good with audience interaction and improv. This is also when Mason took an interest in ushering to meet the patrons and the rest is history.

Mason will be attending Bellarmine University in Louisville this fall. He graduated with high distinction and through competing college offers has secured a full scholarship for all 4 years. This is in addition to leaving high school on the dean’s list at Somerset Community College and taking 18 hours of college credits with him to Bellarmine. His mother and I are extremely proud of him and the hurdles he has overcome. He still deals with Tourette Syndrome every day and always will. The ticks are most annoying, but he never lets it get him down and he is one of the most emotionally stable and mature teens I know.

Mason still has a few more shows to usher and will be at the Playhouse until the end of August. He will continue to act in shows when he can and will likely always be a part of the Playhouse in some way. I hope his story will in some way bring comfort to any family experiencing similar challenging issues. Mason’s mother and I are more than willing to talk to anyone if it is no more than needing to vent frustrations to help families find help.

Even with Mason’s random appearances at Spotlight, we will all miss his help and friendly talks. We have big shoes to fill. If you are interested in ushering or volunteering at the Spotlight Playhouse for our upcoming 20th season in August, please contact me any time.

Chad Hembree
Executive Director of Spotlight / Proud Father