Where math, nature, disability and spirituality intersect

Rena Cohen (centre) finds her work to be rewarding for both cast and audience | Photo courtesy of Rena Cohen

Sequence, a play written by Canadian ophthalmologist and playwright, Arun Lakra, explores the age-old philosophical tension between free will and determinism.

Performed by the Realwheels Theatre, the play runs March 14–24, at the Presentation House Theatre.

Theatre for the underrepresented

Vancouver-based non-profit theatre company Realwheels Theatre seeks to bring actors with disabilities and actors without disabilities together in a more inclusive and welcoming environment that is accessible to all. Their goal is to change the audience’s conception and understanding of what it means to have a disability.

“We don’t ask people what their disabilities are, but we ask what sort of accommodations they need. For example, we extend rehearsal periods to deal with stamina issues and provide ASL interpreters as well as personal care attendants for some of our performers,” says Rena Cohen, the play’s director.

Cohen says that this was what really attracted her to this organization, and in 2009 she decided to join them as managing director. Although she didn’t have a lot of experience working with people with disabilities, she was inspired by the actions of Realwheel’s founding artistic director James Sanders. She was impressed with his vision and compassion about working with people with disabilities, and that Realwheels could fill an important niche by meeting the needs of a group of people that were and remain underrepresented.

“The most rewarding aspect of my work is seeing the theatre’s positive impact on the cast and audience members,” says Cohen.

Theatre as therapy… and profession

Cohen believes that identity politics and self-identification have become more important in the last few years. Two of the performers in Sequence self-identify as having a disability and two do not.

One cast member, Jake Anthony, who self-identifies as a person with a disability, was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder at an early age. As is typical for people with A.S.D., Anthony found it very difficult to socialize with others and to understand communication, especially non-verbal communication.

“Before I started acting I had a hard time even looking people in the eye… through acting you become an expert on human emotions,” he says. “What started off as a life tool became something that I loved.”

Anthony’s parents enrolled him in a theatre program with the City of Burnaby with the aim of improving his reciprocal communication. He soon discovered that he enjoyed and had a talent for the theatre, and it wasn’t long before his hobby and his therapy became his profession. His first acting gig was The Heirs of Eros of Arrows at the age of 11, and he hasn’t looked back since.

“A lot of people often ask me if I get afraid onstage. Sometimes I find that I’m actually more comfortable on stage than I am in real life situations. Sometimes it’s nice for me to be able to escape and be somebody else for a few hours,” he says.

Although Realwheels represents an important step towards greater inclusion, Cohen and Anthony still believe that there is a lot of work that still needs to be done on the larger societal level. They feel while the voices of people with exceptionalities are thoughtful and considerate, they aren’t always heard and that people often focus on what a person with a disability can’t do as opposed to what they can do.

“Realwheels looks at people based on their abilities and works with them,” says Anthony.

For more information, please visit www.realwheels.ca.