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Jennings in particular has what she calls "a gallows sense of humor. My husband [Steve, who also uses a wheelchair] likes the term 'crip.' He calls the little accessible parking guy Chris the Cripple. He's such a jerk. I laugh. On our fridge we have a Gary Larson cartoon of two people in chairs in a sanitarium saying to each other, 'You got struck by lightning, too?' We call it 'Steve and Ana's First Date.' I make a lot of jokes Joan doesn't appreciate. Sometimes I have diarrhea of the mouth."
One of the troupe's more didactic skits is called "Facts and Figures." The performers read snippets of offensive language ("That is so retarded," "Are you deaf, or just dumb?") and disconcerting facts ("Most people with disabilities live below the poverty line"). It ends with everyone shouting in frustration and then informing the audience, "Welcome to our world."
Real life is different and full of daily irritations and humiliations. None of the cast members works full-time. Jorgensen cobbles together a living from two part-time jobs, one as a reporter for the Ste. Genevieve Herald and the other on the assembly line at Ste. Genevieve Industries. Williams works part-time as a security guard at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum. The rest are either looking for jobs or living off Medicaid or Social Security. "If it weren't for our families," says Stuart Falk, "we'd have nothing."
Many have to rely on unreliable public transportation to get around and maneuver their chairs through buildings that aren't fully accessible, including their own homes. Some live in nursing homes. Some depend on attendants to get them out of bed in the morning and take them to the bathroom. "Finding an aide that's halfway decent is incredible," Stech sighs. It's impossible to do anything spontaneously.
"Disability is a pain in the ass, literally," Jennings says. "You have to tilt the chair backwards sometimes, as a pressure-reliever."
Some of this has made its way onstage, but many of the sketches show the characters turning bad situations into jokes or triumphing over adversity. As Jennings puts it, "If you get too emotional, you're not taken seriously."
Many cast members say their favorite skit is one that's no longer performed very often, called "Go Figure." To write it, Lipkin collaborated with Katie Bannister and Rich Scharf, who have both since left the group. The skit juxtaposes Bannister's account of the first time she had sex after the car accident that left her a quadriplegic with Scharf's initial sexual encounters with men.
"It's the most beautiful two-person interplay," says Stuart Falk. "They're both discovering their sexual identity."
Chancellor played Bannister once in a performance of "Go Figure." "The look on my mom's face!" she remembers, laughing. "I was talking about sex!"
The actors have plenty of ideas for future sketches. Allen and Jorgensen want to write one about people like Allen whose disabilities are not immediately obvious. Cohen is interested in the siblings of disabled people. And Chancellor and Williams are playing with some ideas about wheelchair dating.
"It's the disabled version of Days of Our Lives," Williams jokes. "Like trucks in the sand, these are the wheels of our lives."
Call time for the first performance of the season is 7 a.m. It's the first Wednesday in October, and the venue is the Missouri Botanical Garden's quarterly staff meeting. It's a limited cast today; some of the actors didn't feel like getting up that early. Lipkin fully sympathizes. "I don't want to tell you what time I went to bed last night," she groans.
The sun is still rising as the performers roll through the automatic doors of the Ridgeway Visitor Center. The meeting doesn't start till 8:30, but Lipkin wants to give her ensemble time to adjust to the auditorium and do one last run-through. Locker and the assistant administrative director, Kevin Chestnut, escort the cast into the auditorium and start adjusting their microphones. Lipkin stays in the lobby to schmooze.
The DP is a time-consuming operation and runs on a shoestring budget, barely enough to pay the Internet, phone bills and salaries for Locker and Chestnut. Though the troupe gets paid on a sliding scale for performances, the money is distributed among the actors to cover transportation expenses.
Occasionally, some money comes streaming in, most recently from the Regional Arts Commission and the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation. But usually it's a trickle. "Corporate clients have not been lining up to donate," Lipkin explains. "It's easier to get funding for children with disabilities. They're cute."
Despite the early hour and the fact that they're at a meeting, the botanical garden audience manages to muster some enthusiasm: They laugh at Jorgensen's delivery of the bathroom line in "You Going to the Show?" and clap along when Jennings delivers the "DP Rap." ("Our worlds may vary, but it's my reality. My identity is more than a 'disability.'")
When it's over the cast takes a bow and intones, as they do at the end of every show, "We are among you, we are of you, we are you, do not be afraid." The audience responds with a standing ovation. Some women later say they had to wipe away tears.