A play about the right to die gave James Sanders the will to live.
In 1991, when he was 20 and recovering from an accident that had turned him into a quadriplegic, Whose Life Is It Anyway?, written by England’s Brian Clark, gave him strength to face the long road ahead of him. The 1972 teleplay, later turned into a theatrical production in 1978 and immortalized in a 1981 movie starring Richard Dreyfuss, focuses on a sculptor, paralyzed from the neck down, who goes to court to fight for the right to die.
“What was important to the character was to be empowered to have the right to choose his own destiny,” explains Sanders, the founder of Vancouver’s Realwheels Theatre, speaking over the phone from his Vancouver home. “Being a young quadriplegic, I had no idea what I was going to be able to do, and to see this guy who was so passionate about having control over his own life and death, you realize that the passions and the convictions of the individual supersede the body.”
From that point, Sanders made it his goal to someday play the lead role. He had trained as an actor before his spinal-cord injury (the result of a dive into a snowbank that Sanders rarely talks about in interviews), and he was committed to carrying on his craft. It took more than 20 years, after he had founded Realwheels and helped put on shows like the Jessie Richardson Theatre Award–winning Skydive, before he was finally ready to take on the mature role. He was able to secure the rights to Whose Life Is It Anyway? directly from its playwright, Clark, who even wrote an updated script for him.
Even though another twist of fate has robbed him of his dream of playing the lead, the process of building a local production of Whose Life Is It Anyway? has given his work new meaning.
“I knew it might have been my last piece; my body is so unpredictable and to do a show like this is so demanding,” he says, adding that performing in Skydive “ripped everything out of me”. “I really wanted to go out with a signature piece. But unfortunately, I started going through some serious health issues in 2011, shortly after my son was born.”
Years of being a quadriplegic can take a number of different tolls on the body; in Sanders’s case, he had an implant that had become infected, which in turn required surgery to remove late last year. Initially, to avoid exhaustion, he had planned to alternate the role with Bob Frazer, the well-known (able-bodied) local actor he’d gone to theatre school with back before his accident. But with the recovery period in hospital, it became obvious that Frazer would have to take over the role completely.
Sanders admits it was hard giving up the part, but he feels fulfilled watching his friend do it in his stead. “We had already done a lot of work together, so being in the rehearsal room with him I still feel like I’m part of the show,” says Sanders. “Watching Bob now, I’m giving him whatever I can and letting him go.”
The play, with nine actors, traverses all the controversial terrain that still fills the headlines today: the medical ethics of keeping a person alive with technology, arguments for and against euthanasia, and the rights of the government over a private citizen’s body. Asked if assisted death is a sensitive topic within the disability community, Sanders answers emphatically: “It’s a touchy subject in any community.” He adds: “I don’t think that the disability community is any different: there are people in this community that are strong supporters of the right to die and others that are strongly opposed. But I believe everybody is invested in this because everybody dies.”
Knowing the play has such wide, timely interest reassures Sanders that bringing it to the stage was worth his years of work. All around him, he saw the issue coming up in the media, and the generation of baby boomers faced with dying parents and questioning the laws around how people die.
“I came to understand it was so much bigger than me just wanting to play a role,” he says. “It’s about society now.”