Playwright Paul David Power’s life changed forever when his partner of nine years passed away suddenly in September 2013. Power brings that experience to the stage this week with the world premiere of “Crippled” on Feb. 7 at the LSPU Hall in St. John’s.
Already an award-winning play, “Crippled” is set to change the theatre scene in this province. Based on the real-life experiences of Power, who has lived with a physical disability since birth, “Crippled” explores themes of seen and unseen disabilities, sexuality, and loss.
“Accessibility and inclusion is so much bigger than just putting in a ramp or giving somebody an opportunity to engage in a play through ASL.”
Kim White, marketing and community relations
The play highlights in a subtle way the fact that people are multi-faceted, and disability does not define an individual.
The entire story takes place in one night on the St. John’s waterfront. The main character, Tony, played by Power, has just come from George Street and encountered some unfriendly people. He’s upset about his appearance and living with a disability, and a lot of things are weighing on his mind — especially the death of his partner.
“So, he’s down contemplating life, and, you know, is it worth living?” said Power.
But then Tony is approached by a stranger named Evan, played by Pat Dempsey, and the two very different characters strike up a conversation, eventually coming to revelations about who they are and how they think about life.
Award-winning director Danielle Irvine said she first heard a reading of the script when it was still in development.
“My jaw was on the floor,” she said, and insisted that she had to be a part of it.
“It’s very rare to get to work on a show that is truly a piece of art — art in the way that it is moving, it captures your imagination, it teaches us something about ourselves, it inspires us to be different and to grow, and at the same time is so much fun. And shows that do all that in one 90-minute block are rare … and even more rare again when it’s based on a true story.”
When Power’s long-time partner, Jonathan, died suddenly in 2013, his life changed immediately and immensely.
“(Jonathan) had a great, dry sense of humor, and loved life,” said Power. “But he was also very pragmatic and organized, and was sort of the level-headed one in the relationship.”
“I relied on him a lot.”
As an artist, Power felt the need to express the grief he felt.
“That’s where ‘Crippled’ came to mind, wanting to write this play about what you experience when you lose someone important to you, and there’s this whole fascinating journey when you go through grief that I’m sure most people, or many people, know what I’m talking about. It changes you, and it changes your perspective on life and your perspective about yourself.”
“What I learned, that I hope people might take away from the play, is life is short, and appreciate those around us. Give them an extra hug tonight because, what I’ve learned, is not one person in our world can guarantee you’re going to be here tomorrow, no matter what your health status, or age, or anything.”
And then, he laughs.
“I swear, though, there’s fun parts in (the play), too!”
Indeed, it seems that everyone involved with “Crippled” always first speaks about the universal themes of love, loss, and grief, but then they immediately exclaim that it’s also hilarious and entertaining.
“That’s what I think is a strong element of the play,” said Power. “It’s very truthful in how those experiences are written, and it comes from the heart.”
Closing the gap: making theatre accessible
The title itself, “Crippled”, stems from Power’s childhood.
“I remember being like four years old, and that’s how I would describe myself: crippled. And it’s how the medical professionals at the time (described me), and now it’s not an acceptable term.”
But Power says the title is also symbolic of the “many ways we can be crippled.”
He says that experiencing grief can feel crippling, and that the main character, Tony, “is crippled not just physically but emotionally.”
Power says that idea also speaks to the fact that many disabilities are unseen. From the outset, Power made it a priority for the show to be accessible to as many people as possible.
“Which I don’t think any, or many, plays do, especially in Newfoundland. And if they do do it, it’s a last-minute thought, it’s not part of the production model.”
Power says it is really just about taking that extra step of being thoughtful of accessibility when producing a play.
“It’s a whole market or audience sector that we’re really not paying attention to,” he said.
Kim White is in charge of marketing and community relations for the production, but she has more than 20 years’ experience working with both government and community groups around inclusion and accessibility in the province.
White has used braces and crutches for mobility since she was three, but is also now using a wheelchair to help with mobility. She says there is a “huge gap” in the province when it comes to accessibility.
“The general public aren’t even sometimes aware of the barriers that exist just to be able to go and be an audience member,” she said.
This show aims to change that.
“Crippled” has ASL (American Sign Language) interpretation for people who are deaf, FM systems to increase audio for people who are hard of hearing, audio description for people with vision disabilities, accessible seating for people who have wheelchairs or use any kind of mobility device, accessible transportation to bring people to the LSPU Hall, and a relaxed performance (which is also a “pay what you can” showing) at the Saturday matinee.
“The pay what you can is really helpful for people facing financial barriers,” said White. “Research shows that a lot of people with disabilities are dealing with lower income, so it’s again an accessibility feature that may go beyond persons with disabilities.”
The relaxed performance means the production is more sensory-friendly, which includes making sure there is no harsh lighting, the sound is softer, the room is more lit than a typically dark theatre, and everyone present understands that people may have to come and go during the show. There is also a quiet area where people can go if they need to leave the theatre.
White says people should phone the LSPU Hall when booking tickets to let them know if they will be using any of the accessibility features. A detailed list of the features and corresponding shows is on the production’s website at www.crippled.ca.
White says “Crippled” means a lot to her personally because it goes beyond what people typically think of when making a venue accessible.
“Accessibility and inclusion is so much bigger than just putting in a ramp or giving somebody an opportunity to engage in a play through ASL,” she said.
“It’s that bigger piece of having people included and having people connect, having people experience life as they should get to experience life just because you remove barriers and allow people to do what other people would do. And that’s a bigger thing than just the accessibility itself. It’s a humanity thing, it’s a connection thing, it’s what we all need.”
Irvine says that while she has noticed an improvement in accessibility features in theatre over the past five years, there is still “a long way to go.”
“The biggest thing is that now we have a lens through which to look at producing,” she said. “We are learning how to do this better, but we’re learning by doing, and I’m just, at this point, opening my eyes and my ears and finding ways to do this better, inclusively.”