By Ray Downs
By Lindsay Toler
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By RFT Staff
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By Allison Babka
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In 1996 she attended a workshop at the Atlanta Center for the Arts with the playwright and director Joseph Chaikin, who had written several experimental plays about disability. Chaikin suffered a stroke in 1984, which left him with aphasia, a language disorder. "His speech was difficult to follow, but he was amazing, the model of an artist I'd like to be," says Lipkin.
"After his stroke, he and Sam Shepard wrote a play. It was like how Monet made cutouts after he started to go blind. To be an artist is to look at the world and uncover truths, to dissect the world and put it back together in a different way. Joe made me look at disability in a new way. I wanted to go back to my own community and do this."
Back in St. Louis, she met Fran Cohen, a teacher at Washington University School of Medicine's Program in Occupational Therapy, and proposed they establish a theater troupe to perform work like Chaikin's. Cohen liked the idea. "For people with disabilities to advocate for themselves is very empowering," she says.
Lipkin and Cohen's new theater company had its roots in the independent-living movement that started in Berkeley, California, in the late 1960s. Disabled activists had begun to demand better access to buildings and public transportation so they could work, attend school and live as normal lives as possible.
Some wanted to be actors, too. There weren't many disabled characters in traditional theater, though, and most directors were reluctant to cast people in wheelchairs. A few activists decided to create their own performance art. By the 1970s disability theater began to expand beyond California. The DisAbility Project was the first group of its kind in St. Louis.
In the fall of 1996 Lipkin was diagnosed with breast cancer — "ironically," she comments dryly. After she recovered, she began to work with her ensemble to create a repertoire of sketches. The group gave its first public performance in the spring of 2000 at the downtown Marriott for 300 attendees of the International Post-Polio and Independent Living Conference.
"It felt almost holy," Lipkin remembers. "We went out on the staging area and looked out at the sea of people. Some of them were on ventilators. I said, 'It's been a long day, wouldn't it be nice to do some deep breathing and gentle stretching as a way of starting the performance?'
"There was this sea of people, their eyes wide and expectant, and they were stretching. I thought, 'This feels powerful; they're going along with us.' They were open to the first thing I suggested. Something is really starting to happen."
Unlike a traditional theater troupe, Lipkin's actors travel to their audiences, comprised mostly of students and office workers undergoing diversity training. Lipkin understands that most of the people her group performs for don't necessarily want to be there.
"We use humor a lot," she says. "In one skit, 'You Going to the Show?', we have people in wheelchairs arguing about why they don't want to see the performance. It's very, very funny and completely upends expectations of the audience by acknowledging their discomfort."
It's also not above toilet jokes: In the skit's biggest laugh line, one character, when informed that disabled people do in fact go the bathroom, complains, "I know they go to the bathroom, but I know they don't go like we do. That's gross! And what if they have sex?"
There's one other disabled-theater company in St. Louis: Theatre Unlimited at the Jewish Community Center near Creve Coeur, which puts on musicals. But Lipkin prefers to produce original work.
"The DisAbility Project is community-based theater," explains Ann Fox, a professor of English and gender studies at Davidson College in North Carolina. Fox was part of the ensemble when she taught at Wash. U. "It's coming out of the community for the community to answer questions it has about itself, like the work Anna Deavere Smith does. It's pretty unique."
Reid Williams, a cast member since 2005, once played Conrad Birdie in a Theatre Unlimited production of Bye Bye Birdie. Because of his spina bifida, he couldn't stand up and wiggle his pelvis. "I wiggled my chair," he says.
"I want to be a sit-down comedian," he quips, "but I ended up loving DP. It opened my eyes to a lot of things. The word 'handicapped' comes from an old English term for 'cap in hand,' like you're begging. That's why people don't like that term. I didn't know that till a few weeks ago."
There is, however, no language mandate for cast members. The term "disabled" didn't come into widespread use until the 1990s. Actor David Stech, who is 48, has no problem calling himself "handicapped." But nobody has embraced "crip" yet, the disability-rights equivalent to "queer."
Every rehearsal begins with the "sharing circle," where cast members talk about their lives. These discussions furnish the raw material for most of the group's skits.
A few years ago, Stuart Falk, who has multiple sclerosis, spent several weeks in and out of the hospital owing to a series of urinary-tract infections. He described the experience to the group as a trip to a resort — not quite Club Med, but Club Medicine.