Realwheels Productions is focused on breaking down barriers and destigmatizing preconceptions around people with disabilities. They are about normalizing one of the many equity-seeking groups that is still marginalized and pre-judged. Race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation are attracting ongoing movements of recognition, yet persons with disabilities are still discriminated against or seen as “other” despite being one of the largest of these marginalized societal groups. As Artistic Director of Realwheels, Tomas Mureika expressed, “rather ironic, considering we may all at some time in our lives live with a disability.”
This ‘integrated’ theatre company, located in Vancouver, Canada, includes those living with disability and others who are TABS (temporarily able bodied). “We see disability on a spectrum, affecting all our lives in different ways and at different points of time,” said Managing Director, Cadence Konopaki. “Some are born with a disability; some acquire it later in life. Some have large barriers due to systemic inaccessibility in our world, some have smaller barriers. But in some way and at some time, disability is part of all our lives.”
Realwheels’ professional performances always consist of an integrated cast and crew and their community-based projects and programs primarily involve those living with disabilities. Their staff is also integrated – co-leaders, Cadence Konopaki (Managing Director) is able-bodied, and Tomas Mureika (Artistic Director), lives with Parkinson’s.
Professional productions at Realwheels Theatre
Performances are geared towards deepening the audience’s understanding of the disability experience. Over the years, some of their major productions have included:
SKYDIVE (2007): A multi-award-winning production performed in regional theatres in eight cities across Canada.
SPINE (2010): A playful multi-media exploration of identity in the face of a sudden life transformation, pushing the boundaries of technology along the way
WHOSE LIFE IS IT ANYWAY? (2014) ignited dialogue around right-to-die issues while garnering six Jessie Richardson Award nominations and winning two.
CREEPS (2016): The first fully-integrated performance of David Freeman’s play in its 45-year history, garnering five Jessie nominations and winning three, including Outstanding Production and Artistic Achievement.
SEQUENCE (2018): The first integrated production of this play, featuring an actor who is blind portraying a blind character and an actor with autism portraying a character with another disability.
ACT OF FAITH (2019): A new play inspired by an actual and controversial event in Vancouver’s disability community. ACT OF FAITH featured an integrated cast and included wheelchair dance (also referred to as mixed ability dance) as part of our storytelling vocabulary.
The “Wheel Voices” projects are similar to a collective theatre company within a company, with work often devised and performed by artists who identify as living with disabilities. Though there are variations in the cast, they often remain for multiple successive” Wheel Voices” shows, giving these community-based performances an identity of their own and the feeling of an ensemble company. A variety of material under a unifying thematic link is usually presented, such as:
COMEDY ON WHEELS with a stand-up comedic bent
SEXY VOICES a burlesque-type show focusing on disability and sexuality
WHEEL VOICES: TUNE IN!, their most recent, which is framed as a musical variety show encompassing material ranging from original musical numbers, emotional poetic monologues to TV-styled comedic sketches. The “Wheel Voices” productions are themed under a common banner but they are representative of the ideas, writing and performances of the wide variety of participants. These are then shaped by a supportive, creative team into cohesive productions.
Realwheels is interested in creating professional world class art that stands up against any other theatre companies. “Although since inception Realwheels has always been a haven for artists who identify with a disability, we are crafting inclusionary integrated productions that reflect the reality of the world around us, both on and back-stage,” Mureika said.
“With 25% of Canadians identifying as living with a disability and that number only poised to grow, Realwheels wishes to create barrier-breaking productions that represent this population – and stage a wide variety of shows where disability need not be the driving conflict of the story, but rather, forms the landscape on which universal themes are debated on stage.”
Their interest is in creating unique, multi-media audience experiences, incorporating cutting-edge digital and streaming technology alongside inventive stagecraft while supporting the human element and the power of the written word. The theatre’s goal is to create entertaining and exciting new productions which audiences would be thinking about and discussing long after the house lights have gone up. The integration of digital and streaming projects also greatly increase accessibility and reach to new and existing audiences and more inclusive demographics. These core values were set out in Realwheels’ founder and first Artistic Director, James Sanders’ official mandate for the company.
Actors with a disability and their role in raising awareness
Raising awareness is always possible. This is dependent on the roles performers with disabilities are given and the intent of that casting. Compare and contrast Michael J. Fox in “The Good Wife” and Alan Alda in “Marriage Story.” Both actors play lawyers in these dramatic works. Both actors are actually living with Parkinson’s Disorder (PD) and are outspoken advocates for awareness of the cause.
In his role, Fox uses his Parkinson’s symptoms to deconstruct negative preconceptions about PD to his advantage, by focusing on his symptoms as deliberate character traits, which, based on how his character has been scripted, he utilizes as an actor’s tool to define the character, manipulate and intelligently outwit his legal rivals. He effectively uses his PD as a “secret power” to best his opponents by using their preconceptions of disability against them. In his portrayal, Fox utilizes his PD as just another part of his actor’s toolkit the way any other performer would use what is in their own individual repertoires.
In stark contrast, Alda’s character is radically different. He is a brilliant lawyer who may be living with PD, though it is not in any way key to the character or plot (as far as the storytelling goes). Alda’s performance challenges PD stigmatization by “normalizing” his lived experience and not drawing any attention to it whatsoever. By not addressing it, PD is therefore never an important trait that specifically informs his character – it is just part of the movie’s landscape, not needing to be a plot or character point. By not incorporating Alda’s PD within the character he plays, the creators are making a much larger statement, indicating that his disability does not define him.
Though polar opposite, both performances are important – both portray super-intelligent self-aware attorneys living with PD in widely diverse ways, but, most importantly, they represent inclusion of artists with disabilities into the artistic world to mirror our own. “And, Alda being an actor actually living with a disability but being cast as a character that may or may not have a disability is obviously the most hopeful in full inclusionary integrated casting — a Realwheels priority!” Mureika shared. “Why can’t the part of the brilliant lawyer – or any other role, for that matter – be played by an actor with a disability? It is all about breaking down barriers so our artistic world represents the one in which we live… again, a Realwheels priority!”
Inclusive theatre and its contribution to community integration
At Realwheels, the goal is to continually expand audiences and demographics so there is ultimately no perceived barrier between ‘disability theatre’ and ‘theatre’. Barriers are continually broken, making quality art compatible with any other theatre company. They aim to tell all types of stories in brand new and exciting ways – stories that have universal themes and ideas about the human experience, which will entertain and reach the broadest possible audiences and leave them thinking long after the shows are over. “Inclusionary integration is a huge part of that. If we can bring in increasingly inclusionary and integrated audiences to our integrated productions, we will have accomplished something essential at the societal level,” Mureika said.
Opportunities for artists with disabilities
Until now, professional theatre has largely viewed accessibility from the standpoint of the audience member and mostly limited to physical disability; ensuring there is space for a wheelchair in the audience, for example. In the past couple years, this has been changed to incorporate more accessibility for audience members with disabilities such as providing audio-described performances for blind audience members, or relaxed performers for those that are neurodiverse.
Opportunities for artists with disabilities to be on stage in productions has been next to none, until recently. This is for 3 reasons:
1) Professional theatre companies pigeon-hole artists with disabilities. Directors typically cast an actor with a disability in a disability role but very rarely will it be done the other way around. And of course, the number of shows with characters with disabilities are also extremely limited! Usually used as a token to instill audience pity or fear. For example, Shakespeare’s Richard the III or Tiny Tim in Charles Dickens A in Christmas Carol
2) Professional theatre companies are unaware of how to accommodate artists with disabilities. Traditional theatres normally run for long 10–12-hour days, six days a week. With such schedules, this can be a huge barrier for artists with disabilities who face issues with stamina, pain or other such issues.
3) Artists with disabilities have not had professional actor training made available to them. This is due to traditional methods of actor training and the inaccessibility and rigidity of the academic institutions and curriculums.
Realwheels has been working on all these areas but now, most significantly, in their new professional-calibre, three-year actor training program which will be launched in September 2021. This will be the first of its kind in Western Canada. Details can be found here: realwheels.ca/academy
Due to provincial guidelines with all arts and cultural performances having to remain closed, all programming has been online since mid-March 2020. In the last year Realwheels delivered:
• a playwriting workshop and public reading online
• completed a playwright-in-residency program culminating in a livestreamed reading of the playwright’s work
• wrote, rehearsed, recorded, and live-streamed a musical based on the stories and lives of 14 community artists living with a disability. eels attempt to preserve the event- level mystique of live theater during the era of Covid.