Sheltered workshops, one of our country’s dirty little secrets, are explored in the upcoming Real Wheels Theatre production of David E. Freeman’s Creeps.
A history lesson
Originally developed to help injured World War I veterans get back into the workforce, over the years the sheltered workshop took on an entirely different focus. The result was a programme providing cheap labour under the guise of developing workplace skills for the intellectually disabled. Originally designed as temporary employment training, the practice continues today, with many participants spending decades in the programs.
A growing controversy over the practice led to the Province of Ontario to announce last year that it would phase out sheltered workshops. Promises have and are being made by other provinces with similar programs.
“[Sheltered workshops] may have been well-intentioned when they started, but they just didn’t know enough about how people would be affected,” says Creeps director Brian Cochrane.
Creeps tells the story of four men with cerebral palsy who spend their days toiling away in a sheltered workshop. Tired of the way they’ve been treated, they escape to the washroom where they share their feelings and vent their anger for their institutionalized environment, and for the charities which support it.
“This becomes their safe place,” explains Cochrane. “It sure says a lot that the bathroom they escape to becomes their safe place.”
Freeman knows of what he writes. Living with cerebral palsy, he wrote Creeps on a typewriter operated with a stick held between his teeth. While not considered wholly autobiographical, Freeman did participate in such a workshop. “The playwright is clearly drawing from his own life experiences,” says Cochrane.
On being politically incorrect
Set in the early 1970s, much of the language Freeman uses would be considered politically incorrect today. The title itself is a double-edged sword.
“They refer to themselves as creeps, but others do as well. The term gets thrown around a lot,” says Cochrane.
“…I suspect it will push a lot of buttons” – director Brian Cochrane
While the language and situation may make many theatre-goers uneasy, Cochrane doesn’t believe that was the intent of the playwright.
“I don’t think it is designed to make audiences uncomfortable, but I suspect it will push a lot of buttons,” he says. “It holds a mirror, warts and all, up to Canada. There is a lot of shit still happening that we would prefer to avoid, and this play doesn’t avoid it. It is challenging for both audience and for the actors.”
A love/hate relationship
While Creeps may be set four decades ago and we may think we are more enlightened in how we deal with people with disabilities, Cochrane says there is still a long way to go.
“As someone who doesn’t have a disability I have a love/hate relationship with the play,” he says. “Part of the reason that Creeps is still strong is because of how far we still have to go to be inclusive. We’ve come a long a way, but we still have much to do.”
Creeps plays The Cultch’s Historic Theatre (1895 Venables St, Vancouver) from December 1-10. Visit http://realwheels.ca for tickets and information.