Tuesday, October 25, 2016

A play, an alphabet board, a new voice

This Is The Point is a play about two couples: a man and woman who have cerebral palsy, and a man and woman who have a child with cerebral palsy. One of the actors uses a head pointer to communicate with an alphabet board. “The play is about love, sex and disability,” says Dan Watson, a co-writer and actor whose son Bruno, 7, has cerebral palsy. He co-leads Ahuri Theatre, which is producing the play with The Theatre Centre. “The themes we circle around are love, parenthood, communication and acceptance.” BLOOM interviewed Dan to learn more.

BLOOM: Tell us about Ahuri Theatre.

Dan Watson: It was formed by me and a few other people who went to school together in France. We did a lot of physical theatre there. We worked with mask and clown and mime and tragedy. Ahuri works in Japan and Canada. We’ve done a lot of shows that incorporate different languages. When we write, we write on our feet, not sitting at a computer. We get in a space and we do improvisation and the script comes at the end. This Is The Point evolved more out of my personal life. Our older son Bruno is non-verbal and I wanted to do something that looked at language that went beyond words.

BLOOM: I'd love to hear more about Bruno.

Dan Watson: Bruno really likes rough-housing, loud music, wrestling, and going fast. His brother Ralph is four, and the two of them have fun running around with Bruno in his walker and Ralph on his bike. To communicate, he may look at things he wants, or vocalize or gesture with his arms. He uses an eye-gaze system and some low-tech tools like a communication book. We want to find a way for him to consistently advocate for himself—not just by saying ‘no,’ but by actively saying ‘I want to do this.’

BLOOM: In This Is The Point, one of the characters has cerebral palsy and uses a head pointer and alphabet board to communicate. Why did you want to do this play?

Dan Watson: Tony Diamanti is the actor who is non-verbal and uses a chair. We met Tony through another project called What Dream It Was. We invited him to work on that, but he said he wanted to do his own play and he sent us a play. I was struck by his voice, his sense of humour, his passion and his wanting to share his sexual experiences and to make sure that people know that people with disabilities are sexual human beings that live very full lives. I think a lot of people in the general public don’t see someone who looks like Tony that way. I thought this is exactly the kind of opportunity that I want to make happen. If Bruno was older and wanted to do this, this is something I’d hope someone would take on and work with him on.

I didn’t know where it would go, but we started to work on this play. We wanted all four of us to be on stage.

BLOOM: So in addition to you and Tony, there is Liz MacDougall, who is Tony’s partner in real life, and Christina Serra, who is your partner? 

Dan Watson: Yes. At first we tried to make the play the way you usually do. It was very physical, with scenes and blackouts. But it wasn’t working for Tony. We were trying to fit him in to something that wasn’t going along with the way he communicates and lives. So we started to have Tony communicate the stories himself, but then we didn’t fit in. We’ve come to something where we talk in the show and we talk with the audience and we also jump into scenes that are re-enactment scenes. By the nature of who we are, these scenes all have connection to disability.

A lot of the stories we share are, for lack of a better term, trying to normalize in a certain way disability—and sharing our lives, rather than lecturing or trying to teach people. We model the way we work together so we don’t hide the transitions that take a long time. It takes a long time to get set up and there’s nothing wrong with that, whereas we live in a society that is obsessed with speed. We’re asking people to stop and slow down and be with us and to feel that that’s okay. It takes Tony a long time to communicate because we have him talking directly to the audience and the audience has to read along with him.

BLOOM: In a trailer for the play, Christina makes a comment about how we’re not as inclusive as we think we are. Then she says: ‘You don’t know about disability until you’re opened up into that world.’ It seems like your play might be giving people an immersive experience into that world.

Dan Watson: That might just be the thing we want to have happen to an audience. When people encounter disability, it can bring up a lot of different feelings, and some uncomfortable ones. What we want to do is share and open them up to that world and show them that it’s okay that people with disabilities live all different kinds of ways. Just like anyone, they have struggles and happy moments.

BLOOM: I found it very interesting what you said about speed. Our culture glorifies speed. This is something I’ve been aware of because my son has a number of physical disabilities and he can’t move quickly.

Dan Watson: We were initially trying to fit the play into a form that was about speed. We need to move onto the next scene, keep it going, keep the energy up. Then we realized that’s not what this group is bringing, and slowing down is not a bad thing. That’s when things opened up for us. We presented it a couple of times and audience members say they feel at ease and there’s a real casualness to the show. We’re welcoming them and opening them up into our world for a moment.

Of course this is part of a bigger conversation. I don’t have any visions of everyone coming away from the show knowing everything about disability, nor do I want that. We’re just sharing our lives and our perspectives. I do hope they go away and take us with them, and that maybe we pop up into their heads in their daily lives when they need us—perhaps even when they’re encountering people who don’t have disabilities but who are different.

BLOOM: Did you have experience with disability before Bruno was born?

Dan Watson: No. I don’t think I even knew what cerebral palsy was before Bruno was born. His life has opened me up into a whole different community. I have these memories of being in school and kids with disabilities were in chairs on one side of the playground watching us. And I look back and think ‘Oh my god,’ I didn’t even think about them.

BLOOM: Have your thoughts about disability evolved?

Dan Watson: Yes, and with this show too. At first we were focused on the way Tony communicates. When I see people encounter him it’s a bit of a novelty—they’ve never seen something like that before. Then Tony says: ‘Pay attention to what I’m saying, not how I’m saying it.’ Over the course of working on this show in a funny way disability is less of an issue. The differences aren’t so apparent to me anymore. Tony is who he is and it’s only when I see other people encounter him that I go ‘Oh yea, Tony is non-verbal, yet I forgot in a funny way.’

BLOOM: I think having a child who doesn’t speak conventionally is challenging because verbal speech is so prized in our culture.

Dan Watson: It is really hard. There’s constant pressure from outside in terms of how Bruno interacts with people. There’s a scene in the show where I’m on the playground and that’s always a big challenge because Bruno and I go to the park all the time. We go on the accessible swing and I’m always having to negotiate with kids who want to be on the swing. And explain to them who Bruno is and why he can’t go on the other swings. You have to be this advocate and do all this explaining when you just want to hang out on the swing. Then you also wonder—what does Bruno think? I’m sure he knows this is going on.

We were just talking this morning about subtle communication things that you know with your child that other people don’t know. You probably see this with Ben. It’s hard when you can see what’s going on but others can’t seem to see it.

BLOOM: What’s been the greatest challenge of producing this show? Was it altering it from a traditional format?

Dan Watson: Yes. But that’s also the artistic—that’s what artists need to do is push beyond what they know, and that includes disability but also how you make things work. Usually people who don’t have disabilities are cast as characters with disabilities. That’s because it’s easier for the show—and the way the show is done.

But if you take a step back and say no, we’re working with people who are differently abled on stage, there are a lot of opportunities that present themselves. That’s really exciting as an artist. Instead of doing it the same old way you’ve always done it, it can generate amazing, different work that you’ve never seen anywhere else. It’s all about who’s in the room. Sometimes that’s a challenge—it’s taken a long time for us and trying different things. But the challenge is actually part of the reward, as well as what’s really engaging.

This Is The Point runs from Nov. 4 to 20. Book your tickets here. Photo below of Dan Watson, Christina Serra with their children Ralph and Bruno. 


Oh my goodness, I would LOVE to see this!!!!! So much about this resonates with me - my background in theatre, my son who is non-speaking... finding a voice is such a powerful theme in theatre. Thank you for sharing, Louise!