Lately I’ve been treated to a delightful variety of theater and cabaret performances. In the past month alone I’ve seen the amazing Uma Thurman in the Broadway production of The Parisian Woman, and my wonderful daughter, Samantha Elisofon, who starred as Lucy in EPIC Players’ neuro-inclusive off-Broadway production of You’re a Good Man CharlieBrown. Two weeks later, I attended my daughter’s inspirational cabaret performance at EPIC’S “Songs About Ourselves” at The Triad West 72nd Street.
I also enjoyed a drag queen cabaret performance at a friend’s 60th birthday party at Lips restaurant on East 65th. After dinner, all of our servers—including the coat check person and the bartender, already in dramatic stage make up—transformed themselves into comedians, Broadway characters (think Mary Poppins, Annie, Hello Dolly) who lip-synched, sashayed and shook their booties around a roomful of 110 guests. Our now-60-year-old friend gets an A+ from me for her hilarious and entertaining birthday party. What a memorable experience! I’m learning first-hand about the compelling and transformative performances neuro-diverse and gender-bending actors can create for audiences.
Finally, last Friday I trekked to Brooklyn to see Samantha play Emily Webb in a musical (yes, musical!) adaptation of Our Town for DreamStreet Theatre Company. Like EPIC Players, DreamStreet is a non-profit theater group for developmentally disabled individuals. While both theater troupes offer heartwarming performance opportunities to adults whose voices are rarely heard (on OR off-stage), there are important differences. First, (perhaps a bit selfishly?) I longed for a theater group that performed here in Manhattan, so my friends and family would not always be facing a long subway ride to Samantha’s shows. Second, EPIC is a neuro-inclusive theater company that combines the talents of disabled and neurotypical performers—a unique collaboration. In addition, all EPIC’s actors must audition to join the troupe and then audition again for each play and cabaret opportunity. Not every actor who auditions is offered a role and some parts have more lines than others. EPIC’s process seeks to emulate the real world, providing members with a supportive-but-competitive opportunity to practice skills necessary for success and independence in New York City and the world.
In contrast, DreamStreet operates as an extended family, where cast members share the spotlight more equally in each performance, regardless of talent or experience. All cast members play their roles—acting, dancing, singing or chanting rap music–and play them well. I applaud the bravery of these actors, who are clearly giving their best. At the end of these productions, the atmosphere is heartwarming, with cheering audiences reminding me of the days when I attended school plays. IMG_5161
As poignant as those performances were, I wanted a more challenging (and, yes more convenient) theater experience for Samantha. My daughter is hungry for the opportunity to collaborate with other talented artists AND compete the way neuro-typical adults do in the real world. So far in EPIC’s first few productions, I’m proud to say that all cast members have grown and exceeded expectations (in much the same way as DreamStreet’s participants), but the resulting performance aims at a professional production that audiences will enjoy even if they walk in off the street and know none of the performers.
Here’s the reaction of one stranger who wandered into an earlier EPIC Production:
“Hello, my name is Andres Chaves. I have recently moved to New York City and by random happenstance I happened to find myself at your opening night performance of Dog Sees God. I was not sure what to expect, but I wanted to let you all know that I was blown away. The amount of talent and professionalism that I witnessed on that stage was truly magical. Every actor gave their heart and soul in every scene and it really showed. I have never seen such a wonderfully supportive and coherent ensemble. It has been a while since I experienced a group of actors enjoying what they were doing, as much as this cast. I was blown away, so thankful to have been there and I can’t wait to see what else is in store for all. All the best, Andres”
At EPIC, all actors are paid a stipend for their performances. They also receive free voice and movement classes, help with their resumes, headshots and audition prep. I commend both EPIC and DreamStreet for working hard to break negative stereotypes about people with disabilities. What distinguishes EPIC is the mission to train and prepare actors who are capable of becoming professionals to perform on stage and in films that are not limited to people with disabilities. While EPIC audiences are filled with friends and family who cheer loudly, a fair number who attended You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown and the EPIC Cabaret were unrelated strangers. Praise from family and friends is wonderful, but somehow the compliments from objective strangers seem sweeter and leave me feeling more euphoric. I’m thinking someday “objective” directors and agents will recognize the profound importance of offering actors with disabilities a chance to audition for appropriate roles. Such a quest for truth and authenticity is long overdue in the entertainment industry.
The past month of theater has taught me that there’s room for all kinds of artists on stage (though not necessarily on Broadway). Beyond the dazzling Uma Thurman, there’s a whole range of talent that deserves to be seen and appreciated. Regardless of whether an actor is neuro-typical, performing in drag, or disabled, the voices of all types of performers offer their own special art and entertainment to audiences who can open their eyes and hearts. In the future, I hope there will be expanding opportunities for diverse artists to entertain audiences, not just in Manhattan or Brooklyn but everywhere.