All the world’s a stage, but very little of the world we currently live in – that would be 21st century Canada – actually makes it up on our stages. This leads to impoverished theatrical experiences catering to a clique, and then we have the audacity to ask: Where is the audience?
Forget the thorny issues of race and class in casting for a moment: How often do you see disabled bodies on a stage? In a culture still tilted toward classics done with naturalistic tendencies, you’re more likely to see able-bodied actors treading the boards performing disabilities that are actually dated metaphors for, for example, evil (Richard III) or innocence (Tiny Tim).
Borne, a new project by the playwright and director Judith Thompson currently on stage as a partner production at Soulpepper, features a cast of nine performers in wheelchairs. On the most basic level, it is a refreshing spectator experience, given that there are theatres in Toronto where people with disabilities still can’t get in to the audience, let alone perform in front of one.
Ultimately, however, I can’t applaud Thompson – a one-time social worker who rose to prominence as a playwright in the 1980s and has recently turned part of her attention to similar creations with non-professional casts – and her activist, community theatre aesthetic. She has built a wheelchair-accessible ramp, but it only leads to a dead end for anyone involved other than her.
Borne does have some very compelling moments, but it opens with a cringe-worthy sequence that seems like something out of a third-rate theatre department. Performer Nancy Xia rolls on stage in front of a projection of the moon, then puts on a long-nosed mask and begins to flap her arms like a bird. She is joined by eight others in wheelchairs doing the same – and, accompanied by a piano composition reminiscent of that which accompanied train journeys from Mr. Rogers’ house to the Neighbourhood of Make-Believe, the actors begin to recite a poem.
“We have flown away from you to the moon!” they say. Each. One. Word. At. A. Time.
In this gravity-free atmosphere, thankfully, they remove their masks, drop the verse and talk to the audience directly. Xia, who immigrated to Canada as a girl, has a harrowing story of ostracization and a chemical imbalance that led her to leap from a balcony in a suicide attempt. Paradoxically, it is only as a paraplegic – once the doctors found the right dose of the right anti-depressant – that she has found anything like peace and contentment in her life.
What a story, and Borne features many of equal fascination, but brief. The closer it stays to confessional, first-person narratives, the better. But then there are awkward group choral and movement sections, and dramatic scenes that, it is unclear, are either re-enacted or invented. (The cast is limited here and it has nothing to do with the use of their limbs.) Unlike other artists such as Darren O’Donnell who work with non-professional performers on stage, Thompson blurs the line between documentary and drama in a confusing, rather than confident way.
Theatre and dance created by artists with disabilities has been on the rise in Canada since the 1980s, and has resulted in some innovative work of strong artistic value. Vancouver’s RealWheels, for example, has produced award-winning plays such as Skydive, which used astonishing new technology to send quadriplegic actor James Sanders soaring through the theatre, and Spine, which considered how online worlds and avatars affect everyone’s relationship to bodies.
Borne behaves as if none of this work exists. In the program, the nine performers are described as “artists who use wheelchairs,” in line with current preferred “people first” terminology that has moved us away from terms such as “handicapped.” But the show Thompson has shepherded presents us with nine diverse individuals who really only have one thing in common: using a wheelchair. Borne actually reduces these performers to their disabilities while claiming to do the opposite.
That doesn’t make the people involved any less interesting. Harley Nott, a retired lawyer who worked for the Department of Justice to expel war criminals from Canada, is a wise and worldly presence on stage, while Russell Winkelaar, a handsome, athletic paraplegic, is incandescent in his rage as he unleashes a rant at able-bodied people who use disabled toilets.
Maayan Ziv, a photographer and recent recipient of a Queen’s Diamond Jubilee medal, makes her living, in part, through fashion shoots. “Why would I work in an industry that hides imperfection?” she asks – and, in her contradictions, there lie the seeds of an interesting drama or performance piece.
But whenever the show lands on a point of contention or conflict, the wheels roll swiftly forward before it can be truly wrangled with. Since smart people like Nott and Ziv have all agreed to take part in Thompson’s project, they must find value in their participation and I hope they get something out of it. But I cannot help but feel Thompson has let them down in bringing this performance into a professional environment.
With a growing body of work out there of theatre that incorporates different bodies – whether it is made by the established disability arts community in Canada; or the Lyric Hammersmith in London, which recently cast a disabled Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire; or provocative international performance stars such as Pippo Delbono – Borne feels superficial and directed at a straw audience. Who are the “you” that Thompson and her company address and are trying to enlighten? The people in wheelchairs in the front row? The kindly women in my row who gave the show a standing ovation? (Now there’s an ironic gesture of appreciation.)