The home of exceptionally talented actors
By Gwenyfar Rohler
Theatre For All bills themselves as “Wilmington’s first ongoing creative arts group for folks with disabilities.” The brainchild of theater artists Kim Henry and Gina Gambony, plus local writer and filmmaker Dylan Patterson, Theatre For All combines puppetry, creative movement, improvisation and drumming, as well as traditional theatre skills, to help students conceive and produce shows together. Part of Superstar Academy, a non-profit theater education outreach program, Theatre For All began to operate about two years ago. “Zach (Hanner) had asked me to come on the Board of Superstar Academy, and I said I would,” recounts Patterson, “if we would start doing a class or classes for people with disabilities.”
Now, two years later, Theatre For All has a lot to offer: a weekly performance class on Saturdays at TheatreNOW, workshops with students at Laney High School during the school year, and a make-a-play-in-a-week summer camp. Kim Henry cheerfully reports that the Saturday class is maxed out at 15 students. “We have a waiting list,” she confirms.
Ellis Furst, mother of Theatre For All actress Evangeline Furst, says that at home, Evangeline is pretty much constantly in her own private performance. Ellis and her husband, Don, a visual artist and UNCW art professor, are thrilled with the opportunities that Theatre For All offers. “So often children like our daughter tend to be a ‘one-man show,’ but here she works with her peers in an ensemble setting,” notes Don. Evangeline has Down syndrome and has been performing with Theatre for All since its inception. Like any parents, Don and Ellis see Theatre For All as a great opportunity for “tying our daughter’s performance inclinations into a disciplined, structured setting in which she can develop skills.”
Laura Bullard, a special education teacher at Laney High School, brings her class to work with Theatre For All during the school year. “I’ve never taken a dance class, I’ve never taken a theater class,” she admits with a laugh, but she is on stage nonetheless. At Laney, the classwork leads up to the “Exceptionally Talented Showcase” at the end of the year. “The day they come — everyone: staff, students — are like, ‘Is it ‘Theatre For All’ day?’” says Bullard. With 20 years of experience teaching exceptional students, she is amazed at the growth her students have shown in supporting each other and their work in Theatre For All. With close to 35 students participating at Laney, it is an exciting class.
“We jammed out and rocked the county,” Henry gushes after a class in September. “We’ve got a lot of personality on stage,” Bullard beams.
Bullard points out that it takes a lot of fundraising to make Theatre For All a reality. She also hopes that in the long-term, Theatre For All will become an even more inclusive troupe, including both disabled and non-disabled people exploring art together.
Perhaps that joining together is an idea whose time has come. With Bitty & Beau’s Coffee Shop opening in Wilmington, garnering national publicity (Rachael Ray, CNN), the idea of a diversity-centered business celebrating people with disabilities can succeed and even thrive. But this was not always the case. In fact, even recent history for people with disabilities includes marginalization, separatism and silence.
Don Furst hopes that as Theatre For All grows, so will the audience. “Dylan, Kim and Gina show impressive devotion. They are professionals who could easily choose to limit their efforts to a conventionally talented population, but they are choosing to work with people whom society often views as the weakest,” he observes. “Such devotion increases the value and worth of this special group, indicating that they are worth working with.”
So what is a Theatre For All performance like? We stopped by a performance of Dr. Seuss’ “The Lorax” to find out.
The tell-tale pre-show sizzle of anticipation fills the air. Henry appears center stage with a big smile to deliver the curtain speech. “This creation you are about to see was created by this amazing group of people in four mornings,” she tells the audience. For consummate professionals, putting together a performance-ready show in four mornings would be a challenge, but apparently that is de rigueur at Theatre For All.
Then Henry introduces the warm-up act: Alon McGrath, the proverbial tall, dark and handsome stranger who launches into a stand-up comedy act that is nothing short of breathtaking. From impressions of The Beatles and jokes about science he segues into a story about going to the grocery store recreated entirely with voices and characters from Seinfeld. It’s better than a lot of what I have seen at comedy clubs. He nails the pitch, the timing and the material. But more than that, his work is polished and confident.
Just when one starts to wonder if Larry David knows about Alon, he takes a bow for his comedy and dons a hat to play the fast-talking Once-ler who harvests the Truffula trees to make “thneeds.” Bar-ba-loots drum, Swomee-Swans perform a fan dance, and Humming-Fish pirouette as the audience sits by, entranced by performers loving their moment in the sun. One doesn’t notice any disability, only the ability of the actors to tell the tale. Elements of puppetry and improvisation emerge when the thneed is introduced; everyone in the cast takes turns passing it around and naming the magical item it can become.
Free performances of “The Journey,” an original work, Tuesday, December 13 at 7 p.m., at TheatreNow, 19 S. 10th St., Wilmington. Class and sponsorship information available online at www.superstaracademy.org/theatre-for-all
Gwenyfar Rohler spends her days managing her family’s bookstore on Front Street.