Canadian-born, U.K.-based Tanyalee Davis will make a special appearance in Comedy on Wheels, which features many contributors. (photo from Comedy on Wheels)
Realwheels celebrates Canada’s 150th birthday with laughter. Their new show, Comedy on Wheels, will play for only three days but, hopefully, the levity will stay with audiences much longer. The show will present members of the Vancouver disability community in performances that capitalize on people’s greatest common asset: the ability to use humour to cope with life’s trials and tribulations.
“What better way to celebrate Canada’s 150th than with laughter?” said Jewish community member Rena Cohen, the director of the show, in a press release. “A shared laugh strengthens our bonds and dissolves barriers. Whether you self-identify as able-bodied or as having a disability, come giggle and be entertained. And be prepared for a challenge to any and all preconceptions.”
Cohen joined Realwheels as managing artistic director in 2009. Before her, the company, which was founded in the late 1990s, had produced one show, Skydive, in 2007. Featuring Realwheels founder James Sanders, a professionally trained actor with quadriplegia, the play was regarded as an important and innovative contribution to changing perceptions of disability.
“I joined Realwheels after meeting its brilliant founder, James Sanders,” Cohen told the Independent. “I transitioned into arts management six years earlier and, when James invited me to discuss the company’s next steps, I was curious to learn about the lived experience of disability. I was also well aware of the company’s enormous success with their Skydive project. I saw an opportunity to bridge Realwheels’ early success into a more stable future. The mandate of the company – to create and produce performances that deepen people’s understanding of disability – quickly internalized and became a passion of mine.”
Since Cohen became part of the company, Realwheels has been producing new shows steadily every year, sometimes more than once a year. “We produced Creeps this past winter at the Cultch and we’re currently creating Comedy on Wheels. That’s two productions this season, plus another show in development, and two side projects that are centred on increasing people with disabilities’ inclusion in the arts…. In total, we’ve mounted five professional productions and six community shows to date,” she said. (For more on Creeps and Realwheels, see jewishindependent.ca/creeps-is-a-canadian-classic.)
Realwheels’ ultimate goal is to fully integrate creative people with disabilities into the performing arts.
“A trained actor with a disability can play many roles,” said Cohen. “Absolutely, an actor with a disability can perform in classical plays. Why not?… Every actor brings their own range of experience; every actor accesses their emotional life a little differently.”
About directing, she said, “Our professional shows are typically integrated, a combination of professional actors with and without disabilities. I’m always trying to bring out the truth, looking to the script for what’s called for in the role. Working with different casts and talents is one of the joys of this work.”
In addition to professional shows, Realwheels also produces community shows. “For our community shows,” said Cohen, “we invite anyone who self-identifies as having a disability to participate. We offer training, coaching, a meaningful and considerable theatre experience.”
Comedy on Wheels falls into the community show category.
“We have great stand-up acts, and these are augmented with scenes, live music and projections, making it far more theatrical than an average nightclub or comedy club,” said Cohen. “We touch on the theme of Canada’s 150th birthday, but, more than anything, that’s an excuse to get together, talk about what we think is hilarious, learn about the structure of comedy and celebrate the amazing talents of the people who live with disabilities.”
According to Cohen, the idea for this show – like the ideas for many Realwheels shows – came out of an ongoing dialogue with the community.
“Last season, we explored sexuality from a disability perspective in a large burlesque show. That was in response to the demand to break down the stigmas surrounding sexuality and disability in playful and dazzlingly unexpected ways,” she said. “There was tremendous humour in that show and there appeared to be a growing desire to further explore comedy. One of our regular community cast members is an emerging comic star. I threw the idea over to him, and we came up with Comedy on Wheels.”
To make the show punchier, Cohen invited Canadian-born comic star Tanyalee Davis, who is now based in the United Kingdom, to appear.
“Tanyalee will be integrating her comedy with our show and emceeing it. Very exciting!” said Cohen.
As is customary for stand-up comedy, the cast members have written their own jokes. “Our only ground rule was nothing sexist, racist or homophobic,” Cohen explained. “The only filter being applied is whether it’s funny or not. Of course, comedy is subjective, but we have a pretty good idea when something works or not.”
Another person has been instrumental in bringing Comedy on Wheels to life – fellow Jewish community member David Granirer.
Granirer is a counselor, stand-up comic, writer and speaker on mental-health issues. He teaches comedy classes at Langara College and founded Stand Up for Mental Health, which, according to his website, is “a program that teaches stand-up comedy to people with mental illness or mental-health issues, as a way of building confidence and fighting public stigma.”
“The cast members have created this work with the support and guidance of David Granirer,” said Cohen. “David has an elegant system for creating comedy, the system he’s honed over the years. He breaks the process into very clear and workable steps.”
“Rena Cohen brought me in – she’d heard about me from one of the participants who had taken my Langara Stand-Up Comedy Clinic course,” said Granirer.
For him, it was a small step from his students to the actors. “All of the performers in Comedy on Wheels are disabled in some way,” he said. “Their ages range from 20 to 60. Some have theatrical training and others don’t, but my job was similar. It’s about helping everyone find their comic voices. Most, but not all, of their jokes concern disability. Some of the jokes are also about Canada, but all of the jokes stand on their own (pardon the pun) as good comedy. Everyone will appreciate them.”
Comedy on Wheels is at Performance Works May 18-20. Audio description is provided by VocalEye and all performances are also accessible through American Sign Language. For more information, visit realwheels.ca. For tickets, go to comedy-on-wheels.bpt.me.
Olga Livshin is a Vancouver freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected].