Preview by Sarah Higgins
“I think what’s really important [for the audience to take away is] that the disability experience is the human experience,” says Rena Cohen, producer and dramaturge of RealWheel Theatre’s Creeps, who sat down with Sarah Higgins to chat about the upcoming show. Written by David E. Freeman, this Canadian comedy explores the perception and experiences of a group of men living with cerebral palsy in the 1970s. Tired of their lives in a ‘sheltered workshop’, these men barricade themselves in the bathroom to vent against their institutionalized environment, their condescending supervisor and each other. Creeps won the Chalmers Award and the New York Drama Desk Award. It opened Tarragon Theatre’s first season in Toronto in 1971, and forty-five years later it will be produced at the Cultch. And this time, for the first time, it will have an integrated cast of seven professional actors, three of whom live with a disability.
For this show, each actor’s work includes exploring how cerebral palsy affects his character. The condition is like a fingerprint, manifesting differently for everybody, so the actors had to find how it was expressed in their own bodies. One actor, who has cerebral palsy himself, discovered that his character portrays it differently than he does. As Rena says, “Essentially, I think his character is unrecognizable from who he is, as the person in everyday life.”
Rena affirms that Creeps “is incredibly, hysterically funny. It’s also very rude, very angry. It’s hard-hitting.” Freeman didn’t pull any punches when writing the play, and RealWheels aren’t either. That said, the team did consult with colleagues they thought might be offended by the harsh language. The response from those asked was, “Be true to the playwright’s intentions.” Reflect the world that the play was created in and is raging against. RealWheels does that, and takes it a step further. This production seeks to engage the audience in conversation with the world of Creeps. There will be talk-backs with consultants from within the disability community, an opportunity for the audience to learn more about the history of disability in the 1970s and, hopefully, to start asking questions about perceptions of it today. One of the things that drew Rena to RealWheels was a shared interest in the exposure of lived experiences of disability. She stresses that those experiences aren’t binary. “There’s a scale, or a continuum of sorts. We’re all challenged on some level. And the human experience is defined by how we manage those challenges.”
There are many reasons to see RealWheels’ Creeps: to learn the history of “sheltered workshops”, to support artists with disabilities, and to engage with Vancouver’s disability community. Most importantly for Rena Cohen, though, is the play itself. “This play was a game-changer in terms of Canadian theatre history, and I don’t think it’s going to be done again in Vancouver, at least not for many years. So if people are interested in understanding Canadian theatre, what really changed the face of Canadian theatre, what was considered to be the first authentic Canadian playwright’s voice—this is it.”
Creeps runs November 30 – December 10 at the Cultch’s Historic Theatre.
Sarah Higgins is a recent graduate of the MFA in Creative Writing program at UBC. She’s foremost a playwright, and has had work produced at both edges of the country. In Vancouver, she’s stage-managing Alchemy Theatre’s “Alice in Wonderland” this December.