Sometimes making theater can feel more like an endurance test than like making art. We sit in the theater for a 10 out of 12. We go to rehearsal night after night, not seeing our friends or families until the show is done. But you know what is really an endurance test? Swimming across Lake Ontario for 36 hours, using only your arms.
The marathon swim across Lake Ontario is just one story featured in PUSH! Real Athletes. Real Stories. Real Theatre. which will premiere in August 2015 as part of the Panamania Festival happening alongside the Toronto 2015 Pan Am and Parapan American Games. Commissioned by the Canadian non-profit arts organization, Tangled: Arts + Disability, PUSH is part of Ping Chong + Company’s interview-based Undesirable Elements series and features six elite Parathletes telling their true stories. The cast members include Para-equestrian Jody Schloss, adaptive rower Victoria Nolan, Sledge Hockey player Paul Rosen, Alpine Skier Sarai Demers, swimmer Jenna Lambert, and poly-sport competitor Martha Sandoval Gustafson.
Undesirable Elements is Ping Chong + Company’s community-engaged theater series; we work with local individuals, not actors, to create productions that explore issues of culture, identity, and difference. Productions are developed in partnership with local host organizations through an extended workshop and residency period. Ping Chong, myself, and other artistic collaborators conduct intensive interviews with potential participants, which ultimately form the basis of the scripts that cover the historical and personal narratives of individuals, who are in some way seen as “outsiders” in their mainstream communities.
Ping Chong + Company has created over 50 works in the series since 1992, in cities across the United States and internationally. Originally, productions were focused on ethnic and/or national identity, exploring stories of immigration or living with one foot in two cultures, and participants shared only a common geographic location to unite their unique backgrounds. Over the last decade, the scope of the project has expanded to address intersections of “otherness” that go beyond ethnic identity, including productions on transgender identity, Muslim identity, and experiences of survivors of sexual violence.
PUSH is not the first time that Ping Chong + Company has explored the world of disability, but it is the first time that we have explored the world of sports. We strive for cultural sensitivity in our interview process and being aware that we do not always “know what we do not know.” In this case, having worked on several previous productions with a focus on disability experience, we learned that the cultural gap was not so much around knowledge of disability issues, but around sports, as our near total ignorance of athletics was thoroughly revealed. Ping doesn’t know what a “regatta” is. Or what a “heat” is. I have never been on skis and am fuzzy on the difference between “Slalom”, “Giant Slalom”, and “Super Giant Slalom.” Neither of us knows what curling really is (does anyone really know what curling is?).
Picture this scene: We are interviewing Paul Rosen, Paralympic gold medalist, who was the hero goalie of the 2006 Torino Olympics, achieving the first ever shut-out for Team Canada in a gold medal game. He is telling us how he inspired his team to overcome the odds and keep fighting to win the Gold in an upset victory over Norway:
“So, at the break I tell my guys, ‘We are up 1 – nothing. Keep believing, keep shooting.”
Ping asks some basic questions: when is the break; how long is the break; what happens during the break. We talk briefly about the Zamboni, the machine that re-surfaces the ice. As I am typing my notes, I check in for clarity…
“So you gave them the motivational speech during half-time?
There is a huge, gaping, silence as Paul looks at me with disbelief. I have revealed my utter ignorance of hockey and thereby committed a major faux pas against a Canadian.
He says, “There is no half-time in hockey.”
Fast forward four months. With the support of a TCG Global Connections On the Road Grant, Ping and I are back in Toronto to workshop the script with the six participants, and to present the work in progress to representatives of the Panamania Festival. The first reading is always nerve-wracking. Will the cast like the script? Will they feel we have represented them accurately? Will we strike the right balance between artistry and advocacy?
There are also logistical challenges that need to be worked out, particularly around making the rehearsal and performance spaces 100% accessible to performers and audience members, and incorporating adaptive technology which ensures the cast members are able to read the script. For example, Victoria Nolan, an adaptive rower and 2-time Paralympian, has only 3% of her vision. Rather than read her script on paper like the other cast members, she will read it off of her iPad with an adaptive software program. Jody Schloss, Paralympic Equestrian, uses adaptive voice technology to speak her lines. Like any technology in the theater, these are prone to glitches, power failures, and other mishaps, so the workshop also provided a trial run to consider how to operate them in the most seamless way possible and integrate them into the overall theatrical design.
Typically, the cast members only encounter the script for the first time at the first read-through, learning about their cast mates while simultaneously seeing how their own stories are integrated. For the workshop in Toronto, I sent Victoria her script ahead of time, to make sure it would load properly into her reading software. I was thrilled to get her response: “I just listened to it – I love it! Very powerful!” Later she told me:
“I was riveted reading through the script for the first time and learning everyone’s stories. I continue to be inspired by Parathletes because we all overcome challenges before we even get to our sport. Then we overcome the challenges of our sport. The other actors/athletes in PUSH are no exception, but like true Parathletes none of the actors want you to feel sorry for them or to focus on their disability. They (we) all want the audience to celebrate their ability and that’s what continues to inspire me.”
I continue to be fascinated by the myriad ways in which theater and sports at times mirror each other completely and at other times couldn’t be more divergent. And now I know – there are 3 periods in hockey, and the breaks are called “intermissions,” so maybe our cultural vocabulary isn’t so far apart after all!
Sara Zatz is the Associate Director of Ping Chong + Company, where she oversees the community engaged Undesirable Elements series. She has had the privilege of interviewing hundreds of individuals from all over the world and has co-authored numerous works in the series, exploring themes such as the experiences of people with disabilities, immigrants and refugees, and disenfranchised youth. She is the writer and director of Secret Survivors, a work which explores the experiences of survivors of child sexual abuse, and oversees the Secret Survivors National Initiative, which partners with non-arts-organizations to use theater to end child sexual abuse. Most recently she co-created Say My Name, Say My Name: Stories of LGBTQ Youth of New Orleans, exploring the real-life experiences of transgender youth of color fighting criminalization in New Orleans. She has led workshops on community-engaged theatre at universities, training institutes, and conferences around the United States and overseen the creation of Ping Chong + Company’s arts education program and training institute to share the methodology of Undesirable Elements with other artists and community members. In over a decade in arts management, she has worked with the Henson International Festival of Puppet Theater, the composer Tan Dun, and Lincoln Center Festival. She holds an M.Phil in Irish Theatre Studies from Trinity College, Dublin and a BA from Bryn Mawr College.