Thespians on Wheels: Joan Lipkin's DisAbility Project is on a roll

There are many ways to fight for social change: marching, shouting, stripping. Joan Lipkin has tried them all, most memorably in 2004 when she enlisted 51 other women to help her protest the war in Iraq by lying down stark naked on the roof of the City Museum in the shape of a peace sign.

But Lipkin has always preferred the theater. On this sunny September morning she's about to launch the fourteenth season of the DisAbility Project, known as the DP. It is one of the few theater groups in the country that produces original shows and promotes disability rights. Under Lipkin's direction, actors have put together a collection of sketches based on experiences from their own lives. Once an audience sees what life is like for a disabled person, Lipkin believes, they'll think and behave differently.

"The theater is a departure point," Lipkin says. "Everything cracks open."

Lipkin's protest — which promoted her show Peace Out! — made the cover of Riverfront Times.
Lipkin's protest — which promoted her show Peace Out! — made the cover of Riverfront Times.

This is the cast's first meeting in its new rehearsal space, the sanctuary of the Central Reform Congregation in the Central West End. The ten actors, eight of them in wheelchairs, sit in a circle and update one another about their summer: job-searching, apartment-hunting, accidents with their chairs. The atmosphere is familial. Lipkin calls it a "safe zone."

In February, as part of the Big Read Festival, the ensemble will perform its own version of Tom Sawyer. Lipkin has already arranged two shows for elementary school students in University City. All that remains is for the actors to memorize 30 minutes' worth of lines, songs and blocking, and rise to the dramatic challenge of playing characters vastly different from themselves.

"Most of our work has been about the culture of disability, but why not stretch ourselves?" Lipkin asks the group. "Why can't Tom Sawyer be played by someone in a wheelchair?"

The group members nod in agreement. "I'm tired of playing a disabled person," says Tom Allen, who has epilepsy and is blind in one eye.

"However," interrupts Fran Cohen, "I want to know how Tom Sawyer relates to disability." Cohen is an occupational therapist and the group's cofounder. Lipkin calls her the "den mother"; during rehearsals, she dispenses hugs, massages and stern reminders to visit the doctor and exercise.

"We don't want to be relegated to the way others see us," explains Aarya Sara Locker, a former clown with Cirque du Soleil, and now the project's associate director. She turns to the actors: "I want you to come in and kidnap this story and make it yours."

Lipkin and Locker pull out the script and begin to read the opening scene. A narrator starts to recite some witheringly dull facts about Mark Twain. Tom, Huck and Becky Thatcher, quickly bored, incite the rest of the cast to beat the narrator into silence with foam pool noodles. But when Tom and Huck announce they are leaving to go find some excitement, Becky wonders aloud why she and the chorus can't have adventures, too.

"How do I relate to this?" Lipkin asks the cast. "Same way an urban kid in U. City might. Strip away the language and the rural setting, and you've got this desire for something exciting in their lives. You say, 'Just because I'm driving around in a chair doesn't mean I don't want an adventure.'"

She and Locker move on to the first song. Locker reads the verses, and Lipkin sings the chorus: "I won't mope around and curse my luck, on the outside looking in." By the third go-round, all the actors have joined in.

"That's us," exclaims Ana Jennings, one of the group's long-time members, "on the outside looking in."

"Yeah," Stuart Falk agrees, "but now we're staring back."

"When I go to certain places," Lipkin likes to say, "I notice who isn't there."

Lipkin herself is difficult to ignore. Now in her mid-fifties, she abandoned a consulting career twenty years ago to become a playwright and director. Her curly hair is streaked copper and gold, and she wears spectacles with thick black frames. In rehearsal she usually goes barefoot, revealing bright green toenails.

Her plays tend to be about people who she feels have been overlooked by the theater establishment. Her early work focused on women, gays and lesbians. Lipkin says her 1989 revue, Some of My Best Friends Are..., was the first piece of gay and lesbian theater performed in St. Louis. (In the Best of St. Louis issue, RFT named it that year's best play.)

Under the umbrella organization, That Uppity Theatre Company, which includes the DisAbility Project, Lipkin's usually working on three or four projects simultaneously. Uppity's office is also her home, a Central West End apartment she shares with a cockatiel named Mr. Crisp.

This year, in addition to Tom Sawyer, she created Becoming Emily, the story of a nurse severely injured in an abortion-clinic bombing, and Beyond Stonewall: Why We March, in honor of the October 11 National Equality March on Washington.

"I get tired of seeing the same conventions and stories," she says. "I don't want to see conventional pretty people in the theater. I watch Project Runway for that."

Lipkin cannot point to one particular incident that inspired her interest in disability issues. Growing up in Chicago's Hyde Park, she was friendly with a one-armed fruit and vegetable seller. Much later, as an adult working with Uppity, she began to realize that disability theater was a natural outgrowth of feminism, in the sense that both women and disabled people are defined by their bodies.

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