Thursday, April 28, 2011

State of the Art (Part II) A Brief History of Disability and the Performing Arts

Some time ago, I posted part one of this series.  After much consideration, here is part two of the three part series.  I've tried to be as accurate as I can, and if I have missed things, it is either that I am unaware of their existence, or they are not relevant to my scope of experience.  Perhaps they also may be covered at another time. For the most part, this brief history encompasses that which I know.  Please feel free to make me (and the readers) aware of any historical data that might be relevant.

I must say, this isn't a very well documented subject, and finding information on this subject isn't easy.  While there are numerous organizations around the world supporting artists with disabilities, my focus will be on Canada, and, since I am here, Ontario, and to a finer degree, Toronto. If anyone has some good source material, I'd love to see it so that I can expand upon this article.

Creeps by  David Freeman:
Whenever they need privacy from their domineering female supervisor, four men with CP, seek asylum in the men's room of the sheltered workshop in which they work.   Here they share their feelings and pour out their venom for the system, for charities and to smoke and gossip and tell their stories. 

This play is most likely the first recorded event featuring artists with disabilities, Freeman himself has cerebral palsy.  It is significant in more ways then that, and perhaps we have never seen anything quite on this level since.  This was the first play presented at Factory Theatre, 41 years ago, when the theatre scene in Canada was pretty much non-existent, but for Stratford.  Eight months later, it was the first play performed at Tarragon Theatre.  When I worked at Factory, I came across the script and had me a little read.  It was a stunning peace of work; and I still marvel at how ahead of it's time it was with the embrace and depiction of the relevant social issues of the time; another first in Canadian theatre.

Then there is a huge gap until the eighties.

Insight and The Glenvale Players
The Insight Theatre Company founded by Gregory Heyn., was semi-professional group mostly made up of blind actors. His mandate - “to educate the public to the misconceptions of blindness” while providing a creative arena for the development of the talents of the blind in the performing arts.  This project was incredibly well funded, back in the day when equity was trendy. It provided a wonderful opportunity for a group of aspiring young blind actors to work in the industry for pay.  Unfortunately, once the money was gone, so was the project.  Mr. Heyn moved on, and the only actor to really take advantage of the opportunity he provided was Alyson Cour  a non disabled actor famous for a number of successful children's shows and films.  The blind kids did continue acting, but not on a professional level.

In the early part of this decade there was a revival of The Glenvale Players , a community theatre group with a mandate to expand and develop the talent of blind and vision impaired persons with an interest in theatre.  During the early part of this decade, Glenvale produced a fair number of original works and provided a venue for some of it's key members to gain experience in order to pursue more professional aspirations.  Sadly, the group seems to become dormant over the last couple of years.

The Glenvale Players: Antigone Cast (back l-r) Kelly MacDonald, Theresa Kikot, Martin Courcelles, Phil Williams.

 (front l - r) Kurt Thomsen, Gleason, Naomi Vondell, Wanda Fitzgerald

Once of the key Glenvale members however, Kelly MacDonald, has gone on to form a similar organization in London Ontario; Out of Sight Productions .

"Over the years, Out of Sight Productions, London's leading theatre company featuring sight-challenged performers, has been successful in fulfilling its mandate of providing vision-restricted theatre artists the opportunity to create and produce fun and exciting theatrical projects." *Kelly MacDonald. OOSP website.
If you live in the London area, and are interested, this group is well worth checking out.

Lights, Camera, Access
Another worth while organization, dedicated to helping to advance the work of persons with disabilities in the entertainment, arts and new media industries that has come into being in the Toronto area is Lights, Camera, Access.  Founded by Leesa Levinson, an actor with Multiple Sclerosis, Lights, Camera, Access is a great resource for persons with disabilities seeking employment, experience, or just wanting to connect with others in the industry.

A driving force in the disability Arts community for many years, Rose Jacobson, founder of PicassoPro has also been a leader in the advancement of opportunities for artists with disabilities. Picasso PRO was formed to facilitate genuine opportunity and integration for artists with disabilities and Deaf artists in the performing and media arts. It springs from the passionate conviction that artists with disabilities and Deaf  artists belong on Ontario and Canada's stages and screens, among our audiences, professional staffs, teachers and cultural leaders.

Abilities Arts Festival
Finally, I'd like to mention The Abilities Arts Festival; *(from the AAF website) a disability arts organization that promotes diversity, inclusiveness and the power of art as a means of enriching the cultural fabric of our communities. Since 2003, Abilities Arts Festival has been adding a new dimension to Toronto’s diverse arts scene. Through multidisciplinary, visual, film and performing arts festivals and events, Abilities Arts Festival showcases artistic excellence by artists with disabilities.

Abilities Arts Festival 2007: Fall From Grace, by Wanda Fitzgerald Rebecca Redmile (Pope Joan) Wanda Fitzgerald (Lucifer)

Looking Forward