Children are taught the importance of ‘inclusion,’ accepting and respecting persons with disabilities, but rarely do they get to see that population achieving many of the same things they themselves can do. Thanks to a collaboration between That Uppity Theatre Company’s DisAbility Project and The Big Read 2010, areas students and their families will get to see Mark Twain’s works performed by a cast of actors with disabilities. “The Assorted Short Adventures of Tom, Huck and Becky,” a reinterpretation of Twain’s stories through a disability perspective, is performed Feb. 18 and 25 at Washington University’s Trinity Music Center. Admission is free, but seating is limited and reservations are required (863-2865 or email@example.com).
The DisAbility Project was started 14 years ago by Joan Lipkin, artistic director of That Uppity Theatre Company, and occupational therapist Fran Cohen. “The mission of our company has always been to put cultural diversity into theatrical practice and to use art to address community issues, so when we created the DisAbility Project it was an obvious extension of that mission,” says Lipkin. She says in her long career in theater, she noticed that there were rarely persons with disabilities on stage or even in the audience during local productions. “So we saw a need. We brought together individuals with disabilities and professional actors and writers to create and perform original material about the culture of disability,” explains Lipkin.
Now in its 14th season, the project helps raise awareness and promote sensitivity about issues such as accessibility, acceptance and attitudinal barriers. “We have an ensemble cast that is diverse in age, race, gender and background. They face challenges that include spinal cord injury, blindness, Down syndrome, multiple sclerosis and other disabilities,” she says. The group has performed for more than 75,000 people and has developed a repertoire of 20 or 25 different pieces that it can mix and match based on the audience, which often includes schools, conferences, special events, festivals, religious and civic groups, and corporations.
When the group was presented an opportunity to work with The Big Read, a national literacy event, it jumped at the chance. “This is the first time we’ve done a play that is part of a literary canon and wasn’t created to convey some sort of message about disability. But I thought it was an important chance to be part of regional and national conversations about the work of Mark Twain and help spread our message at the same time,” says Lipkin.
The piece, suitable for all ages, was written and directed by Lipkin and Aarya Sara Locker. It presents a selection of events from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and includes audience participation and original music written by local songwriters Steve Givens and Mike Hall. Most of the actors use wheelchairs due to the nature of their disabilities, including the actors who play Tom (Margaret Jorgensen) and Becky (Ana Jennings).
“There are so many great events going on in association with The Big Read, and the fact that we are a part of it means we’re moving from the margins,” says Lipkin. She describes the show’s conclusion as one of the best parts of the performance.“We always include a post-show conversation allowing people—especially children—the opportunity to ask us questions about our project and about living with disabilities,” she says. “We try to be bridge builders, and hope people can come to the show and begin to understand issues they are unfamiliar with or afraid of.”