Provocatively edgy. Heartwarming. Rolling-on-the-floor laughing.
These are three of the ways that Rena Cohen describes Realwheels Theatre’s latest production, which is her last after more than 11 years as the company’s artistic director.
Wheel Voices: Tune In! continues the theatre group’s tradition of creating and producing performances that deepen people’s understanding of disability, albeit this time with a musical twist.
Cohen told the Straight by phone that the company’s last major production, Comedy on Wheels, included some live music, which whetted community members’ desire for even more in this show.
Segments were filmed in 14 performers’ homes and later edited into a tight filmed production with some of the semblances of a variety show. It includes rap, spoken word, and choral pieces.
“There’s a really hilarious parody from the musical Chicago, ‘Cell Block Tango’,” Cohen revealed. “It’s a revenge fantasy.”
She explained that there are some exceptionally talented musicians with disabilities in Vancouver, including Mark Ash, who was once in a band that opened for Blue Oyster Cult. He oversaw music composition and performance in Wheel Voices: Tune In!.
Another is Dave Symington, cofounder of the Vancouver Adapted Music Society, who is among the performers.
In addition, Cohen noted that the show will include intense and moving moments, including a segment called “What You Need to Know About Me”, which came out of an exercise that arose early in the process.
“That became a very interesting piece to stage and to share,” she said.
The new production will have two virtual performances: 7 p.m. on Wednesday (May 5) and 7 p.m. next Friday (May 14).
Acting school for people with disabilities
Last month, the company launched its Realwheels Acting Academy. It’s the first program in Western Canada focused on providing professional acting training to anybody who self-identifies with the disability community or is D/deaf (deaf since birth or before acquiring language).
It also welcomes people with hidden disabilities or who are neurodiverse.
“It was designed to be 100 percent customizable to training actors with disabilities,” Cohen said. “I think it’s important because it’s a real systems-change project.”
She pointed out that 22 percent of Canadians identify as living with a disability, but that’s not adequately reflected on the country’s cultural platforms.
Part of it, she added, is because of the lack of opportunities for training for people with disabilities—as well as the lack of outreach conducted specifically to prospective students with disabilities.
“We’re starting to see that changing, but we still have a long way to go,” Cohen said.
Although she welcomes the broad-based movement toward equality, diversity, and inclusion, she feels that people with disabilities are still lagging behind other equity-seeking communities.
“This is one of the ways that we are addressing this,” she stated. “We have partners—National Theatre School and Studio 58—and also with other theatre companies, like the Arts Club and Touchstone.”
To make it more accessible, the Realwheels Acting Academy is offering a module-based curriculum to teach acting, movement, and voice. Students with disability can proceed through the program by taking courses in manageable time frames, like three hours a week.
As for Cohen, she felt that this was a good time to leave Realwheels because it’s in a “pretty good place”.
“I felt very privileged to be a custodian of this company,” she said. “To leave at the right time was important—and also to make space for other voices and somebody with lived experiences.”