Reflections from the process: There is more work to be done

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.”