Building bridges of empathy and understanding: Theatre Terrific champions inclusivity in performance art

Part 1 in a series highlighting the intersection between disability and arts in Metro Vancouver.

For almost four decades, Theatre Terrific has been pioneering inclusivity through performance art. Through classes, workshops and productions, the Vancouver-based theatre group leads an inclusive approach to theatre performance, not just for its audiences, but for performers with a range of disabilities as well.

For managing director Johanna Ascoli, the collaborative approach to theatre production makes for art that is as meaningful as it is entertaining.

“We recognize the need for interdependence as human beings…rather than assuming what support is supposed to look like, it’s a request that is done with respect and honour,” says Ascoli.

Inclusivity with risk, rigour and respect

Theatre Terrific’s work has long aimed to promote accessibility in theatre. Its establishment in 1985 aimed to address a gap in mainstream theatre – one in which the majority of actors were able-bodied. Theatre Terrific’s managing director, Johanne Ascoli, notes how the historic exceptions to this trend were productions that put the wrong kind of spotlight on disability.

Theatre Terrific. | Photo by Chelsey Stuyt.

“It was feel-good, kind of, and ‘look at us, we’re inclusive’ and whatnot…it was almost some form of positive porn,” recalls Ascoli.

Ascoli says this mentality is one Theatre Terrific works to avoid. While physical accessibility is important for making theatre welcoming to audiences, such as wheelchair access and ASL interpretation, the company also looks to promote a culture of respect and artistic challenge for its performers as well.

Remembering the words of the company’s recently retired artistic director, Susan Uchiatius, Ascoli says her mission was to “do theatre with risk, rigour and respect.” She explains that this motto is central to the work that the company does – emphasizing that no matter your abilities, they want to push their artists to take risks.

“We’re not gonna allow you to wallow, we’re gonna set the stage for you to find ways to show us how you would do things differently,” she says. “You might have an exercise that requires the ability to speak or use your hands – we’re not gonna say well you’re not gonna do this exercise. Quite the contrary, it’s basically, okay well, where’s the adaptation here?”

Inclusivity through collaboration

Ascoli says Theatre Terrific considers themselves “radically inclusive,” meaning that artists of all abilities and walks of life are involved in their practice and productions. with facilitators offering support for their artists based on what they need.

For Ascoli, that spirit of togetherness also extends to Theatre Terrific’s method of artistic collaboration. She says their productions are the result of extensive workshopping, in which it is often an idea, rather than a script, that they begin with.

“There’s an aliveness to it – to the creative process where it starts with what’s alive in you,” she says.

Many of the theatre’s productions engage with the audience by breaking the fourth wall. Through this kind of performance, they aim to build bridges of empathy and understanding between artists and the public.

The result, according to Ascoli, is “almost magical” – a word she says she doesn’t like to use.

“You laugh, you cry, you’re touched in so many different ways throughout a play. And I find you leave almost a better human being in a way,” says Ascoli.

For more information on upcoming productions, classes, and workshops visit: