Since the beginning of 2017, my daughter’s theater group, E.P.I.C. Players has been evolving. (Even the name of the group has been a bit fluid.) What has remained solid, however, is the theater group’s mission: Empower, Produce, Include. Create. In that spirit, E.P.I.C. launched its first informal, devised production at the Oxford Theater on June 10th and 11th. The audience was treated to original scenes, created by cast members and focused on their experiences coping with their differences and disabilities, as well as their feelings of alienation and longing for connection. Over the course of the show, the audience sees cast members struggle for empathy and inclusion until they finally find joy in one another’s friendship and acceptance.
How did the devising process begin? I asked Meggan Dodd, Director of E.P.I.C. Plays (the devised theater wing of E.P.I.C. Players).
“We started the devising process by brainstorming around topics I thought would resonate with a group made up of folks with and without a variety of developmental disabilities,” Meggan said “The first topic was family, which is something everyone can relate to. We came up with a list of nice things and not-so-nice things. That list led quickly to the topic of inclusion and exclusion.”
What was the process like for you leading this group?
“Devising with this group was wonderful, because everyone was willing—indeed happy—to share and participate. Providing people with an opportunity to express themselves about things that are meaningful to them is one of my primary goals in the devising process.”
What were you hoping the audience would take away from this performance?
“I wanted the audience to see, hear and experience both the uniqueness of every participant and their common humanity.”
Feelings of anger, sadness, loneliness and rejection were poignantly conveyed by actors, with varying levels of disability. For the audience, this performance was a chance to experience the impact and stress on families of the disabled, and how all family members must learn to live with and accept each other’s differences. In one example, going to an amusement park to celebrate a graduation showed how difficult it was for the disabled person to go on a roller coaster or choose an activity that appealed to the rest of a neurotypical family. In another scene, going on a fishing trip was a mini- education for the boat captain who was angry at the person with autism for speaking too loudly and scaring away the fish.
In the final and most difficult scene, sexual identity is explored. A young woman reveals to her father that she is bisexual. He rejects her and demands that she leave their home. Even her uncle won’t take her in. But her brother—who loves her unconditionally—invites her to live with him.
Each cast member introduced themselves by name, in different tones of voice, using different postures and body language. Samantha’s introduction was loud and enthusiastic, her version of a happy dance. Others presented themselves as quirky, fierce, sexy, quietly proud or with more subtle gestures. Each actor also shared his or her aspirations. Many expressed the wish to perform in film and on TV. My daughter said she’d like to sing opera and work with young special needs kids, and she trilled off a few operatic notes to demonstrate. Collectively, the ensemble expressed their passion and a clear determination to pursue their dreams, just like any neurotypical young adults.
In between scenes and at the end, the group repeated the phrase: “A butcher, a baker a candlestick maker; what do you want to be?” Like a Greek chorus, they spoke louder and more emphatically with each repetition, until the phrase became a deafening roar and victory chant. Their words echoed in my mind after I left the theater. The message? We can be anything we want to be, and we won’t allow our disabilities to stop us. For me, that message came through loud and clear.