Much is made of the lack of diversity on stage, with many arguing that visible minorities are all but missing from the footlights. But while many in the industry are attempting to address the issue of colour, those with disabilities are finding it even more difficult to find work. Looking to change that is Vancouver’s Realwheels Theatre, a company dedicated to ensuring the inclusion of disability onstage, and creating opportunities for people with disabilities to participate in the arts.
[pullquote]“There is quite a bit of self-reflective humour and it is the humour and the music that pulls him through and helps him find himself again” – Jeffrey Renn, Co-Artistic Director of Realwheels Theatre and the director of Re-calculating[/pullquote]“We get phone calls from casting directors all the time asking if we could send someone to show an actor how to be disabled,” says Jeffrey Renn, Co-Artistic Director of Realwheels Theatre and the director of Re-calculating. “There is never a phone call from an able-bodied director looking for someone with disabilities.”
Renn and the team at Realwheels are working to change those attitudes. “Part of our advocacy work is to get disabled actors, who are every bit as talented, to be seen,” says Renn. “I sit down with casting directors and ask things like ‘why that judge couldn’t have a disability’, but they just can’t get their head around it. We have started to come through on issues of colour and sexuality, but we just haven’t got through the disability one yet.”
Along with working to change attitudes around disability within the entertainment industry, Realwheels Theatre also helps change attitudes with the theatre-going public through its own shows. Following on the award-wining Skydive in 2007 and last year’s critical and audience hit Whose Life is it Anyway? comes Realwheels’ latest work, Re-calculating.
“I usually describe the show by saying ‘did you hear the one about the quadriplegic drummer?,” says Renn. “The show features quadriplegic Dave Symington who plays in the band Spinal Chord with Sam Sullivan and is a co-founder of the Vancouver Adapted Music Society.”
Originally written by Symington’s long-time friend Lucas Foss, Re-calculating grew out of a disability awareness piece intended for high schools and colleges, to a full-blown theatrical offering with the addition of dramaturge Liesl Lafferty.
“Our team saw that original piece and walked away knowing that they wanted to turn it into something more,” says Renn. “We brought in Liesel to take the show to that next level.”
For Renn and his team that meant retaining the original learning opportunity and combining it with a dramatic narrative to tell the story of Jonathan Bishop as he navigates his way through identity and relationship struggles, with a drum kit as his constant companion.
“Disability awareness is definitely part of it, but theatre also needs a dramatic arc,” says Renn. “We have built a dramatic narrative through the center of the piece that ties some of the awareness elements.”
Re-calculating will not only give audiences a glimpse into the lived experience of disability, but it is made even more real with Symington on stage, himself a quadriplegic as a result of a diving accident and an accomplished musician. But before you get the idea that this is a story of tragedy, Renn is quick to point out that at its heart Re-calculating is a comedy.
“There is quite a bit of self-reflective humour and it is the humour and the music that pulls him through and helps him find himself again,” concludes Renn.