Close your eyes and enter a room, you hear a director yell out to a cast, “Move stage left, move forward, 5, 6, 7,8…!” You swear that you are at a rehearsal for the Chorus Line at the Repertory Theater, but when you open your eyes, what you imagined is different. The ensemble is the DisAbilty Project, which encompasses both disabled and able-bodied actors. The project exudes raw talent, creates a theatrical vision through word and movement and changes your perspective on life forever.
With like ambitions, Joan Lipkin, artistic director of That Uppity Theatre, and Fran Cohen, an Occupational Therapist both co-founded the DisAbility Project in 1996. They were intent in honoring stories told by people with disabilities, and turning those anecdotes into live theater. “I’m one of those people who always notices who’s not in the room,” Lipkin said.
DP members for the past decade have convened every Saturday morning, and have a sharing circle and rehearsal in a space donated by Washington University’s School of Medicine’s Program in Occupational Therapy. Participants have disabilities such as spinal cord injury, Multiple Sclerosis and cerebral palsy. They discuss funny, sad or frustrating experiences. Lipkin is the primary editor, but works closely with DP members and artistic associates such as Ashley Nanney, and Sarah Shimchick in shaping stories into full skits or rap pieces.
For different performances, Lipkin also brings in guest artists to choreograph or direct. Choreographer, dancer and director/owner of The City Studio, Sara Burke is helping the DP with two pieces entitled, “DiAbility Rap” and “Stop the Violence.”
“What I enjoy is their creativity. Their feedback and interaction with me while we’re doing the choreography. It takes me to a level that I never thought we would go,” Burke said.
The challenge for directors and choreographers is making all the blocking interchangeable, because some members are not always able to attend due to work or illness.
During rehearsals, Burke’s goal is to create different levels for performers. She also directs actors to position their bodies at various angles to create varied visuals for the audience. Actors in electric wheel chairs go up and down, others move from side to side. Arms, hands, legs and heads move to the rhythm. “People can still dance, they just need to know how to dance differently,” Lipkin said.
Competing with Nelly and Chingy, “DisAbility Rap” brings with it bling, sunglasses, ski caps and poetic lyrics that stir the soul. Audience members find themselves moving to the beat, and rapping, “My identity is more than a disability.”
In contrast, “Stop the Violence,” takes a more serious tone and makes a commentary on society today. Actors hold blank placards, and have the audience members project their own experiences.
Lipkin passionately illustrated the main point of the piece. “Where does this eye for an eye get you? No where! Stop the violence! Walk away from the argument!” She said. “It also has repercussions and reverberations for fighting over land rights, fighting over religions….just stop it, because at some point it makes no sense anymore for anybody.”
The DP has reached over 50,000 people in performances, and has received several awards. In 2003, Lipkin was able to create a low budget documentary on the DP, and subsequently was featured in two film festivals. Lipkin in the future hopes to reach larger corporations, and hopes funds will be easier to raise. “Even though it is a labor of love, it still has economic dimensions to it. It’s a tough project, it’s not sexy like Opera Theater,” she said.
With a glint in his eyes, Tom Allen who has been a member for five years said, “I think we have made differences in schools and children, and some adults. Adults are a little harder to change,” he said, “They’re kind of set in their ways.”
Hoping one day that the DP will one day be looked at as a professional ensemble,
Andrew Lackey who has been with the group for 8 years enjoys disproving misconceptions. “I like this work because many people particularly when we first started would have said the things we’re doing now would have been impossible or highly improbable,” he said. “I like showing people that it isn’t.”
For more information, please visit the DisAbility Project’s website: www.disabilityproject.com
By, Kati Stovall