Note: this post originally appeared on the Lyric Opera's Chicago Voices blog on November 6, 2016 as part of their Community Created Performances series.
Pop quiz: how many popular musicals can you name that are written by, performed by, and about the experiences of people with disabilities? I can think of one. It’s called FREEDOM out of order and it is the piece we created with Tellin’ Tales Theatre for the Chicago Voices project. There are musicals about disability (“Next to Normal”) and there are musicals that have featured performers with disabilities (“Spring Awakening”), but all three of these things together? It’s rare.
So, why does that matter? It matters because the stories we hear affect our ability to understand and relate to one another. Stories build empathy. And a lack of access to stories about people who are different than us….well, you can figure out where that one goes.
As Animateur my job throughout the process was to work with Tellin’ Tales to identify our “untold story” – the things that most people didn’t know or understand about our community. At our first rehearsal back in June, we considered the words of author Rebecca Solnit, who said that “people live and die by stories.” We talked about how stories of disability have played out politically and in our daily lives – everything from the ADA to anecdotes about well-meaning allies who responded to the sharing of very real struggles with “tell me something good.”
Over the next ten weeks, we sifted through these ideas, distilling them into a tightly-crafted tale of ordinary Chicagoans navigating life in a unique way.
Then, before our public reading in August – amid frantic scrambling to assemble scripts in binders and organize chairs onstage – we gathered together to take stock of the impact we hoped to have on our audience. I shared a quote from Anne Bogart’s A Director Prepares, in which she talks about how societies need "new mythologies" in order to evolve, grow, and become more inclusive. She argues that the artists are the ones who craft these mythologies, which “always include ideas, cultures, and people formerly excluded from the previous mythologies.” Or, to put it more succinctly, “the history of art is the history of inclusion.” Sitting in community with a responsive and encouraging audience that night, I could feel a shift in the kinds of stories that might be possible.
Magnifying that piece to scale onstage at the Harris Theater in September was nothing short of revelatory. All of a sudden, a wide swath of people – many for the first time -- were invited to consider the journey to succeed in school, career, and dating through the lens of disability. This is what musicals can do for us: they take huge, insurmountable topics and break them down into their most essential human components: the need to be loved, the desire to achieve, the frustration at being underestimated.
And by the way, I would like to be clear that our piece, FREEDOM out of order, is far from perfect. As an artistic team, we tried our best to create authentically and in partnership with our community, but there are things we could have done better. There always are. There are ways we could have been more inclusive; stories we could have dug into with greater complexity; darker aspects to the experience we could have explored. So, it’s not perfect. But it exists.
After all, FREEDOM is not the first piece to take up this charge and it won’t be the last. (Tellin’ Tales alone has been sharing the stories of people with disabilities and their allies for over 20 years.) There is much more work to be done, and it isn’t easy. So, are we are up to the challenge? As Ambition says in the play, "don’t ask me if I can — ask me HOW.”