Despite over 60 years of activism, persons with disabilities still face stigma around their sexuality.
A new burlesque theatre cabaret by Realwheels is working to deepen awareness and advance the conversation. The 18-year-old local theatre company has been working on SexyVoices, a community-based performance exploring sexual identity, in weekly rehearsals since February.
The process began with an open call to the community, including a question-and-answer period at the G.F. Strong Rehabilitation Centre last year. Choreographer Jenny Magenta and director Rachel Peake were on hand to begin what has been an ongoing dialogue around the individual experiences and challenges of people with disabilities, with a special focus on sexuality. These conversations were the creative starting point that now links various scenes throughout the show; they also united the cast and team.
“We started by sharing our stories, going, ‘Oh my God, someone said that to you, too,’ ” Magenta, a performance artist who herself lives with an invisible disability, tells the Straight over the phone.
Realwheels, despite the company name, is inclusive of all persons with disabilities. The cast consists of individuals with cognitive disabilities, hearing loss, mobility impairments, and invisible disabilities, which means that the direction and choreography must be specifically for the bodies present.
For Magenta, what is most interesting about working with this group is how each person embodies and performs the choreographic direction. One example she gives is how, in one section, when she asks everyone to raise their arms in the air, the response looks like arms, a head, shoulders—whatever the various individuals are able to do. And for this work, that’s perfectly fine.
SexyVoices is a collage of performers’ stories, expressed as solos with text and gestures, and through group dance pieces. Magenta and Peake began by asking each member of the group to write a love letter to their disability, as well as to bring in a piece of sexy clothing.
“No matter what people’s disabilities, there was a commonality there around sex and sexuality. You know, we’re all sexual beings,” Magenta says with a laugh.
The sharing of common experiences and desires has been a highlight for Magenta. But, of course, there have also been challenges. The biggest throughout the creation of this work has been the reality of collaborating with people with complex health conditions.
“There are days when, right in the middle of rehearsal, somebody can have a flare-up, they can go from being very present to having pain come up,” explains Magenta, who herself had to miss some rehearsals due to a health issue.
And yet, despite unavoidable hurdles, the journey and its culmination in a performance are an example of the impact art can have on a community. By giving voice to persons with disabilities, a larger shift takes place, turning an unsupportive environment into one of understanding and inclusion.
SexyVoices runs Thursday to Saturday (May 12 to 14) at the Roundhouse Community Arts and Recreation Centre.