Creeps is legendary in Canadian theatre. The raw, subversive little play upended both people’s notions of disability and the stage scene itself when it debuted in 1971.
As Rena Cohen, managing artistic director of Vancouver’s Realwheels Theatre, puts it: “If you were to ask Canadian theatre artists which play changed theatre forever, they would tell you David E. Freeman’s Creeps.”
Freeman, who lived with cerebral palsy, wrote the savagely funny play on a typewriter he operated with a stick held between his teeth. Factory Theatre premiered it, and soon after, it became the first play ever performed by Toronto’s iconic Tarragon Theatre, with a young John Candy starring in one of the roles.
Creeps takes viewers into the world of the sheltered workshop—a term that’s largely fallen out of favour today, referring to a supervised workplace for people living with disabilities. Four men who work there stage a revolt against their treatment and the mundane tasks they have to endure, venting their rage and barricading themselves in the bathroom. The language is raw and uncensored. Those words reveal the characters as real, flawed people who abhor pity. And it gives a rare glimpse into the lives of people living with disabilities in the ’70s. Freeman himself had lived in one of these sheltered workshops and saw that people were spending their entire adult lives doing menial tasks for a pittance.
At the same time that it took a bold political stance, Creeps gave a strong, subversive new voice to Canadian theatre, which was just starting to find its own identity and to free itself from British tradition.
A lot has changed since then. And that’s part of the reason why Cohen and her team have decided not to update anything about Freeman’s work. “When we started to look closer at the play we saw elements very much situated in the time of the play—aspects that would be considered offensive today,” explains Cohen, who’s working as producer and dramaturge for the play. “We’re not trying to change the time period or modernize it. We invited other folks who might be specifically offended by the subject matter, and their response was that what we had was this great play and we should honour the play the way it was written.
“It’s rooted in the 1970s—there’s casual misogyny that runs through the play, racist comments, and casual homophobia. We’re not holding up the play as a model for human behaviour.”
Realwheels, a company devoted to deepening its audiences’ understanding of disability, is staging Creeps with a fully integrated cast. And it says something that, 45 years after Creeps rocked the theatre world, this is the first time the play has been staged with that mix of pro actors, some from the disability community and some not.
“Realwheels has also gone to great lengths to make sure prior to rehearsals and during rehearsal that we have people living with disability to give us feedback on the actors’ choices,” Cohen explains. “We’ve asked them, ‘Is this authentic? Is any of this offensive to you?’ We’ve really pushed ourselves to deliver an authentic production of the play.”
That push for truth has involved people who actually live with cerebral palsy—a condition that can take many forms—coming in to advise the cast on how to realistically move and speak. The production has also brought in movement coaches to make sure the performers don’t injure themselves in the process.
To help accommodate the actors’ varying levels of stamina, the production also has gotten a concession from Equity to spread rehearsals across six weeks at four hours a day, instead of the usual eight-hour days across three tight weeks. “Almost every time an accommodation is made for disability, everybody benefits,” Cohen observes. “Actors generally have more time to have an idea explored and tested and to gestate.”
That’s been especially important with a show this provocative and political. It’s a chance to dig into a historical period when, perhaps with the best intentions, society placed daunting limitations on the employment of people with disabilities. But Realwheels also wants to provoke questions about how far we’ve come and how much farther we need to go. On the employment front for people with disabilities, there’s no question progress has been made, Cohen points out. “The programs in B.C. now focus on what a person can do and not what they can’t do. It’s much more person-focused,” she says.
“We’ve come a long way. But if you talk to anyone who works with the disability community, there’s still a long way to go.”
You need look no farther than the theatre scene, where Realwheels is attempting to effect change but still doesn’t see many members of the disability community appearing in shows. Recently, the company tried to help by doing an inventory and analysis of accessibility in local cultural facilities—not just for patrons but for artists, Cohen says.
“Now there is a greater awareness, and at some theatre institutions, the infrastructure is better,” she says, but adds: “Keeping disability on the table for the diversity conversation has been a challenge.”
So the question remains: does Creeps still hold the ability to shock audiences, even in 2016? Cohen recounts that a few visitors to a recent rehearsal were definitely startled by at least one strong scene.
“I’m aware of other academic institutions and venues that have considered doing Creeps but got too scared,” she adds. “But why are we doing this if we’re not prepared to take artistic risks? What feels true? What doesn’t feel true? And what do we still need to address as a society?”
Realwheels Theatre presents Creeps at the Cultch’s Historic Theatre from Thursday (December 1) to December 10. Two-for-one admission for the International Day of Persons With Disability on Saturday (December 3); ASL and audio description on Sunday (December 4).