Left to right, Aaron Roderick, Paul Beckett and Adam Grant Warren in Creeps, which is being mounted at the Cultch by Realwheels Theatre, Dec. 1-10. (photo by Tim Matheson)
David E. Freeman’s Creeps premièred in Toronto in 1971. Forty-five years later, it could still be considered radical, and most certainly remains relevant.
The 75-minute one-act play takes place in the washroom of a sheltered workshop, where the main characters – four men with disabilities – take refuge. Freeman, “who lived with cerebral palsy, was one of the first writers to put his own voice – a Canadian voice – on the stage in the early ’70s,” reads the description by Realwheels Theatre, which is mounting the production at the Cultch Dec. 1-10. “Tired of the way they’ve been treated, [the men] rebel and barricade themselves in the washroom. The brutality and hilarity of Freeman’s uncompromising and sardonic dialogue drives the show and expresses the tension of the oppressed with a raw ferocity and clarity.”
Realwheels’ mandate includes providing “respectful and accurate representation of disability, with a vision for full integration of people with disabilities in the performing arts.”
“We’ve cast three fabulous actors who live with disability in Creeps,” producer/dramaturg Rena Cohen told the Independent in an email interview. “They’re working alongside four of Vancouver’s top professional, able-bodied actors. To accommodate the stamina of the PwD [people with disabilities] cast members, we’re extending the rehearsal period to six weeks of part-time (four-hour) days – rehearsal duration for a professional show typically runs three weeks, full-time.
“As happens virtually anytime accommodations are made for accessibility, everyone in the company is loving and benefiting from this accommodation. The creative, interpretive process is given more time to germinate, allowing ideas to be explored and tested, and busy actors appreciate being able to take other gigs or auditions that come up during their free hours.”
The local production includes Jewish community members David A. Kaye and David Bloom.
Kaye plays four characters: Michael, Puffo the Clown, a chef and a carnival barker.
“Michael is a young man with cerebral palsy, which presents in him as both a physical and cognitive disability,” Kaye explained. “Michael works at a sheltered workshop, what the characters refer to as the ‘Spastic Club,’ a place where people with disabilities used to go to perform mundane tasks for pennies a day. For Michael, I’m doing a lot of textual sleuthing, because there’s more information about Michael between the lines than in the lines themselves.
“My preparation for Michael has taught me about the many ways that CP can present,” he continued. “Each case is unique, like a fingerprint. To prepare for Michael, I’ve interviewed and observed people who live with CP, watched documentaries and then, in rehearsal, I’m responsive to the other actors who are also making their way through the interpretive process. We’re also all learning about the history of sheltered workshops for people with disabilities.”
As for the characters of the clown and the chef, Kaye said they “live in a heightened reality that engages with the perceptions of people with disabilities through an ableist perspective,” whereas the barker “provides an ironic commentary, almost an infomercial or sales pitch for the worst-case scenario option for people with disabilities.”
Bloom plays what could be called the bad guy.
“I play Carson, the guy responsible for the facility,” said Bloom. “He doesn’t appear until the end, but he is talked about a lot before he arrives, mostly with disdain.
Carson is a representation of the patronizing, suffocating ‘support’ these guys receive at the hands of the institution they’re stuck in. During rehearsals, I’m learning a lot about my own lazy thinking about people with disabilities.”
Bloom has known of Realwheels’ work for many years and of Cohen’s involvement in the company, but only met her on the first day of rehearsals. Kaye became connected to Realwheels through Creeps’ director Brian Cochrane, with whom he has worked before.
”When Brian told me he was working with Rena and Realwheels, I was excited to come on board,” said Kaye. “It’s a unique experience! I can’t wait for audiences to witness the late, great David Freeman’s exposé on the lives of this fascinating group of guys.”
For her part, Cohen joined Realwheels in 2009, she said, after meeting its founder, James Sanders.
“James – along with two other Vancouver-based theatre artists, Bob Frazer and Kevin Kerr – had created and produced Skydive, one of the most successful productions to ever come out of Vancouver,” she said. “You couldn’t help but be struck by its technical innovation (in which a person with quadriplegia flies!), plus it had considerable impact on perceptions of disability. I’d been working in arts management and as a speech/presentations coach when James invited me to discuss the company’s next steps.
“Skydive’s remarkable triumph had been supported by a fairly rudimentary start-up company infrastructure. James needed help, and I saw an opportunity to bridge Realwheels’ early success to a more stable future.
“I was also drawn to the opportunities that come through greater insight into the lived experience of disability. Through James – who lives with quadriplegia – and his considerable network, I was exposed to the vitality and dynamism of the disability demographics. It didn’t take long for me to become passionate about Realwheels’ mandate: ‘to create and produce performances that deepen understanding of disability.’
“We’ve since mounted three more amazing professional shows, and built up our community practice – under the Wheel Voices banner. Our most recent community project was SexyVoices, an exploration of sexuality from a disability perspective. SexyVoices was created with and by the community participants, working with acclaimed director Rachel Peake. It offered incredibly funny, daring and moving performances, received national attention, and sold out its three-evening run!”
Last year, noted Cohen, Realwheels received the City of Vancouver Award of Excellence.
Though technically a part-time position, as with many who work in the nonprofit sector, the professional and volunteer lines blur and Cohen’s “efforts in any week are often significantly greater than a full-time job.”
“Embedded into my professional capacity at Realwheels is the need to authentically reflect the values of disability culture, and to serve as a liaison between the disability community and the theatre community,” she explained. “After James took leave of Realwheels due to medical reasons, I assumed responsibility for both management and artistic direction. I challenge myself to understand and to internalize the diverse voices of the disability community, and to convey those voices through the decisions and choices that we make with regard to projects, casting, mentorships, etc.
“My pure volunteer life in Vancouver has almost completely been centred upon Temple Sholom. I served as board president during the leadership transition planning years (2010-12), and before that I oversaw Temple’s strategic planning process. I’d co-chaired the religious school committee and, earlier, I served on Temple’s security committee, which was formed after 9/11. These days, I’m chairing the communications committee for the Syrian Refugee Resettlement Project, and otherwise just enjoying our Temple community.”
Of what she has learned from her years at Realwheels, Cohen said, “The PwD experience is the human experience. By that I mean that the state of ‘disability’ is not binary with a simple on/off. There is a scale or a ‘continuum’ of sorts. We are all challenged on some level and the human experience is defined by how we manage those challenges and how we optimize as a broader community to ensure everyone has the opportunity to self-actualize. I’ve learned that attitudinal barriers are far more challenging for PwD than physical barriers.
We need to challenge both, but attitudes and preconceptions about disability are the hardest to modify. I’m certainly continuing to work on challenging my own ableist privilege.
“I’ve learned that whenever accommodations are made to serve PwD, everyone benefits. One of my proudest achievements as board president at Temple Sholom was the Accessibility and Inclusion Project, which resulted in the installation of an interior ramp to the bimah. Overall, I think Temple has become safer, more inclusive and more accommodating to the diverse range of ages and abilities of all people who participate in Temple life. As I’ve said, I believe that disability exists across the broad spectrum of society, and that most of us are actually TAB (temporarily able-bodied).
“I’m continually learning about the tremendous diversity in the disability sector,” she added. “I attended the Cripping the Arts Symposium in Toronto a few months ago. One PwD artist there insisted, ‘I can’t possibly explain what [having a disability is] like, but I can show you through my artwork, and maybe you’ll get a better understanding of the struggle for survival.’ Yet another expressed: ‘How we experience the world is all based on who you are as a human being, not about being a PwD.’ Those are two nearly opposing positions.
“I’ve learned that, in Canada, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms recognized equality for those who live with disability in 1982, but there is still a great deal of work needed. The U.S., through the Americans with Disabilities Act (1990), is far more advanced than we are. The U.K. by far leads the way in terms of disability arts practices and inclusion.”
In addition to her involvement with the Temple Sholom community, Judaism and Jewish culture have influenced Cohen’s outlook on life and the work she pursues in other ways as well.
“My Jewish upbringing exposed me to critical thinking, to appreciation for the individual and for community, and provided me with exposure to the arts and theatre,” she said. “We have a rich storytelling tradition in Judaism, and a particular way of using humor to cope with life’s challenges. Exposure to that, combined with having a large, extended Jewish family when I was growing up in Montreal, definitely informed my worldview.
“The aching stories of the Holocaust, and the enormous victory of the establishment of Israel, also feel very personal to me. My parents (z”l) would tell you that, from the time I was little, I was a champion of the underdog, always ready to speak truth to power. I’m not so brave today, but I do feel very strong moral imperatives, whether about equality for PwD, or standing up to BDS [boycott, divestment and sanction] bullies, who are either misinformed about Israel or covertly antisemitic.
“My Jewish education also involved a lot of text analysis, including as a student at parochial school in Montreal. The shift to analyzing scripts was a natural segue for me.”
Cohen encourages people to join Realwheels “for an evening of savage wit and uncompromising truth-telling as we present Creeps, the award-winning dark comedy by David E. Freeman that changed Canadian theatre forever!”
And Bloom echoed her sentiments, “I feel very lucky to be part of this show,” he said. “Not only is it a seminal Canadian classic, but I’m working with a great company and an ensemble with real integrity.”
Tickets for Creeps, which previews Nov. 30 before its 10-day run, are $18-$40 from 604-251-1363 or thecultch.com/tickets. Tickets are only two for $20 on Dec. 3, which includes a post-show reception in recognition of International Day of People with Disabilities. There are also post-show discussions Dec. 4 and 6, and ASL and audio description on Dec. 4. Warning: mature content and offensive language.