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Charlie Gallant, left, and Kyle Jespersen in The Rick Hansen Story.

Spine is about a guy going through a midlife crisis. Rick is about a teenager who likes to fish. Spatial Theory is about the diverse influences on an artist.

They are not, their creators stress, about being disabled.

The Paralympic Games begin tomorrow, and art exploring the disability experience is very much in evidence in Vancouver's continuing Cultural Olympiad. But the people behind these shows say it is essential that the physical challenges of the protagonists, stars and/or creators do not overwhelm the subject matter of the works.

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"We have disabilities, but it's just a landscape," says James Sanders, 39, the Maple Ridge, B.C., resident who stars in Spine and collaborated on its creation.

"There's two characters with disabilities in this show and yet my character's really not interested in his disability; that's not his problem," says Sanders, who is quadriplegic. "It's the fact that he realizes he's getting old; he didn't have his shit together relationship-wise."

Sanders's character - also named James - escapes his real-world problems by going online to Second Life and living vicariously through his avatar. Originally titled Avatar, the play was renamed last year, before the James Cameron film with the same name was due to hit theatres (it features a disabled character whose avatar is able-bodied). The title Spine is a reference to the spinal-cord injury, yes, but it's also a metaphor for strength and keeping something (for example, a book) together.

In 1990, Sanders, in his third semester studying theatre, was playing in the snow in his Coquitlam, B.C., backyard when he fell and broke his neck. After a year of rehabilitation, he returned to his studies and ultimately formed Realwheels, a theatre company whose mandate is to deepen the audience's understanding of the disability experience. In Spine, that translates into a show that ignores the disability and concentrates on characters who happen to be disabled. "People are just people and we just want to show what regular people are up to," Sanders says.

It's hard to imagine anyone calling the multitalented Bill Shannon "regular," but the world-renowned Nashville-born dancer, best known for his moves with crutches (maybe you've seen his Visa commercial), bristles at any suggestion that his art has emerged from his disability - Legg-Calvé-Perthes disease, with which he was diagnosed at the age of 5 and which has a profound effect on hip development.

"Somebody wrote in New York magazine one time: 'Disability is the soul of his career.' And I almost threw up," Shannon, 39, says from New York, where he is developing a new work (he lives on an urban farm in Pittsburgh).

"My work is not my disability. My life is not my disability. It's just one aspect."

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Dance is just one aspect of what Shannon does. He is also a performance artist, video artist, filmmaker, skateboarder. Spatial Theory, the work he brings to Vancouver's Kickstart Festival this month in a co-presentation with the Vancouver International Dance Festival, is a multimedia journey through the artistic influences in his life - music, in particular.

"The piece is not about disability, no. The piece is about creative problem-solving, the product, what comes out of being challenged. That's a universal story."

The Vancouver-based playwright behind Rick: The Rick Hansen Story also sees the experience of his heroic, world-famous protagonist as a universal story, and he chose to focus not on his protagonist's disability, or even his very public campaign, but on the protagonist himself.

Dennis Foon, 58, remembers Hansen's Man in Motion tour well. And as the screenwriter behind the CTV movie Terry, about Terry Fox, Foon has some familiarity with the subject matter. But when the Manitoba Theatre for Young People approached him to discuss writing a play about Hansen, Foon felt strongly that it shouldn't be about the headline-making tour.

"As much as I admire that accomplishment, I think that for many people, it's kind of abstract," Foon says from Vancouver, where he lives. "Not to diminish the importance of it or the sheer superhuman aspect of it, but I don't think we have the visceral reaction to it unless it's right in our face. And I knew that as a dramatist it would be impossible for me to try to show that journey."

Instead, Foon focused on Rick's adolescence, when he played sports at school and went fishing with his buddies on the weekends. "Essentially the story I'm telling is the formative years; it's the making of the myth; what happened? What was it that formed this incredible person?"

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Hansen, who was consulted on the project from the beginning, was very supportive of Foon's decision to focus on his life as a teenager. "That was one of the most defining points of my life," he says. "You know there's a lot of intensity during that period; a lot happening as a young man at the age of 15. I was still growing, having hopes and dreams and always on one adventure after another and surrounded by friends. And it was that period that created and catalyzed the accident."

Hansen was with his good friend Don Alder on a fishing trip in 1973 when they decided to hitchhike back. They were offered a ride in the bed of a pickup truck. A while later, the pickup skidded off the road, and the boys were thrown out. Hansen was paralyzed from the waist down. Alder was able to walk away; even his guitar was unharmed.

Foon's multimedia show also deals with the friendship and mutual inspiration between Hansen and Alder, now a world-renowned acoustic guitar master (he also contributes to the play's score).

"My greatest aspiration is that [people]don't see the play and say, 'Oh well, that was kind of an interesting story, but it's reserved for Rick and his exceptional challenge related to a spinal-cord injury,' " says Hansen, 52. "My hope is that they can see it as a metaphor for all of us in our lives, when things happen out of the blue to us that can be incredibly challenging."

Rick will have its world premiere in Vancouver on Saturday (with previews beginning Thursday), but recently ran in previews in Winnipeg. Foon was overwhelmed by the reaction. "I got hugged three times by complete strangers in the aisles," the writer says. "That was a first."

Spine is at the Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre at SFU Woodward's until March 20 ( ).

Spatial Theory will be performed as part of Kickstart Festival 2010: Configurations on March 20 and 21 ( ).

Rick: The Rick Hansen Story is at the Granville Island Stage until March 20 ( ).

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