Arts & Culture

Rolling into the future

By Lorraine Graves

Published 12:02 PST, Mon January 13, 2020

Last Updated: 11:50 PST, Wed January 29, 2020

We see colour blind, gender blind and—to some extent—age blind casting in professional theatre nowadays. But, we are still not seeing much physical ability blind casting. Realwheels, a professional theatre company headed up by Richmond’s Rena Cohen, works to change that. 

“We celebrate the talent, ability and the many gifts of the disability community,” says the company’s artistic director Cohen. 

The physical barriers for people living with disabilities are all too real, yet Cohen says “The founder of Realwheels, James Sanders, (an actor who became quadriplegic after an accident) told me that out in the world it was far more challenging to navigate attitudinal barriers.” 

To conquer negative attitudes towards people living with disabilities, Realwheels aims to hire performers and playwrights with direct experience. The company just announced its first playwright in residence, Toronto’s Kirsten Kirsch. An experienced writer and recording artist, living with cerebral palsy gives her experience that directly informs her writing. Funding through the Canada Council for the Arts will allow Kirsch to come to Vancouver in February to bring her musical, Gimpy, to life.

“If these past few years have taught me anything, it’s that community is invaluable to making art,” says Kirsch. “Grateful is not a big enough word for what I feel toward the Realwheels team for this incredible opportunity. I’m elated to receive the space and support to learn, grow and further develop my musical.”

Calling the playwright in residence program “awesome,” Cohen is “very excited” about the opportunity to produce’s Kirsch’s musical.

Cohen herself lives with two chronic digestive diseases; hidden disabilities that require special care. She credits the Canada Council for the Arts for ensuring Kirsch’s musical will have a long life beyond just the Realwheels performances. 

“Most of the other funders and private foundations tend to believe that a playwright in residence is an award for an individual, but they have a great impact on the greater community,” Cohen says. “When we were founded by professional actor, James Sanders, he was in every production and people were surprised. So many had never seen an actor with quadriplegia before." 

Cohen says Realwheels continues to challenge the norms with their casts and crews. 

“With this playwright in residence (program), we are challenging the writing. These voices need to be heard. That’s what (the program) is fundamentally about,” she explains. “I think we are going to see some very exciting work from this playwright.” 

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