Disability takes to the stage

Photo by Tim Matheson.

Photo by Tim Matheson.

On Feb. 3, 1971, the story of four men living with cerebral palsy (CP) came to life on the Factory Theatre stage in Toronto. Creeps, by Canadian playwright, journalist and poet David E. Freeman is credited as the play that changed Canadian theatre forever.

Creeps brought disability stories to the stage. The play will be acted out for the first time by a fully integrated cast. Three of the cast members are from the disability community, and four are able-bodied actors. The play runs from Dec. 1–10 at The Cultch Theatre.

Deepening understanding

Freeman, who worked as a journalist in Toronto, once wrote an article for Maclean’s magazine titled “The World of Can’t,” a brutally honest account of living with a disability. Inspired to adapt it into a stage play he wrote Creeps, and the man who inspired him – Bill Glassco – became the artistic director of the play.

First produced in 1971, Creeps was highly successful. But with success comes controversy. With its derogatory language and mature content, the play is likely to offend some viewers. Realwheels Theatre – whose mandate is to produce performances that deepen people’s understanding of the disability experience – is the only theatre company that was willing to risk reproducing it this year.

“It represents the truth as David Freeman reflects it,” says Rena Cohen, current producer and dramaturge for the play. “He was expressing his anger rooted in his own direct experience of living with CP and working in a sheltered workshop, so while there are aspects of the play that are difficult to watch, it’s also brilliant and heartbreaking and very funny.”

Cohen says that roughly 14 per cent of Canadians live with some kind of disability, but we don’t see that reflected in our cultural institutions or on stage.

For Adam Grant Warren, an actor who plays Jim in the play, the play is a genuine representation of what it’s like to live with cerebral palsy, so he’s proud to play a role. But he still wonders.

“When can we get to a place where a character can happen to be in a wheelchair, or be blind, or be gay, or be a person of colour, and not have those expressions of their minority status be the centre of their stories?” he asks.

A long history with Creeps

Rena Cohen, producer and dramaturge.| Photo by Tim Matheson.

Rena Cohen, producer
and dramaturge.| Photo by Tim Matheson.

The play follows four disabled men as they toil away in a “sheltered workshop” – supervised workplaces for physically disabled or mentally handicapped adults that were controversial for isolating disabled workers and paying them marginal wages. The men do mundane work in the shelter such as weaving rugs, making blocks and folding boxes. Tired of the way they’ve been treated by their condescending female supervisor and society, they rebel by barricading themselves in the washroom where they smoke, gossip and vent their hatred of their institutionalized environment, and for the charities that support the system.

Warren, a professional actor for 15 years, is the only cast member who lives with cerebral palsy offstage. CP is a congenital neurological disorder that Freeman also lived with. It affects body movement and muscle coordination. Consequently, Warren has been in a wheelchair all his life.

“People always ask me ‘How did you get in that chair?’” Warren says, laughing. “And I always say ‘I came out in the chair.’ Well, I didn’t [really] come out in the chair because that would be uncomfortable for my mother, but I was born with it. It’s not the centre of who I am, but it’s always been an aspect of who I am.”

Warren’s relationship with Creeps dates back to his undergraduate days at Memorial University in Newfoundland. He did his senior seminar paper on the play, specifically on the significance of the washroom. For him, getting to be in the show has been a cool experience.

But he has mixed feelings about it.

“When I found the play in my undergrad, I was like oh I’ve never seen people with CP accurately represented on stage before, and it was intriguing and enthralling,” he says. “[Now], I have a bit of a different response to it because it’s still weirdly such a relevant play. That unsettles me a little bit.”


For more information, visit www.thecultch.com.