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New Realwheels community theatre production, Super Voices, shines spotlight on unique superpowers in the disability community

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Photo: The Georgia Straight

Move over  web spinning, invisibility, and shapeshifting.  In real life, sometimes the greatest superpowers are the most understated.

That’s the notion behind Realwheels Theatre’s latest community project, Super Voices. The show, produced by Rena Cohen and directed by Jeffrey Renn, runs this Friday and Saturday at the Roundhouse Performance Centre.  Staged within a landscape of professional projections, the dazzling multimedia performance features stories and  talents from the disability community.  And, capes and fireballs aside, it brings to light the awesome powers that often come as second-nature to people with disabilities: from superhuman patience and compassion, to resilience and  alternate forms of communication.

A sinister villain possesses people’s souls, trapping them in technological limbo. It’s up to our Super Voices crew to unleash their unique superpowers to release the innocent captors. With compassion, tolerance and patience, and some zany adventures along the way, they unite to conquer evil!  —REALWHEELS

This latest show is the third Wheel Voices community project conceived, workshopped and staged by Realwheels Theatre, whose mandate is to deepen the understanding of the disability experience. (Previously, Wheel Voices to the Max! and Wheel Voices Live! were standout successes.) The niche Vancouver-based theatre company, founded by local actor James Sanders, who lives with quadriplegia, unites the disability community with professional artists for a series of workshops, culminating in an annual live performance.

“The concept behind Wheel Voices is that there are a lot of opportunities for people with disabilities to engage in sports—you’ve got wheelchair basketball, adaptive sports and so on—but there aren’t a lot of opportunities to engage in the arts, and very little in terms of performing arts,” says Cohen, Managing Director of Realwheels. “So that’s where we’ve stepped in: we’re providing experiences in the performing arts to help fill the gap in both exposure to performing arts and training opportunities for people who are serious about developing themselves as artists in the community.”

These days, Realwheels, a not-for-profit, relies on a small team—Cohen, Renn, and Communications Director Lindsey Adams—to help move the collaborative community projects from idea phase to exceptional,  professionally-staged productions.

“We don’t want audiences to have the experience that somehow watching our community projects is in any way a compromise,” says Cohen.

For Super Voices, the company worked with award-winning projections designer, Jamie Nesbitt, integrating stunning visual projections with live theatre. Honing in on the superpowers that people with disabilities possess, Super Voices moves “beyond the typifying of people with disabilities as objects of pity or mere sources of inspiration.” The show deconstructs clichés with confidence, creativity and a bit of comedy, too.

For audiences of Wheel Voices projects, this vital insight into the lived experience of disability makes it both less alien and alienating, and emphasizes common ground. And for performers, Wheel Voices is exactly that—a real voice, an unabashed authenticity, in a safe, encouraging environment. “It’s a lot about overcoming fears and insecurities,” says Cohen. “To perform in front of an audience, especially if it’s based on your own story, that’s a huge confidence booster.”

Playing into participants’ individual talents—from narrative skills to innate comedic timing—Wheel Voices gives participants the opportunity to explore their own stories and develop their acting skills.  But, perhaps, it’s the collaborative experience of the workshops, where participants hone communication skills, build trust and create social ties, that translates best into the real world.

“It’s incredible,” says Adams. “People that literally didn’t want to go outside are now going out to movies—they’re feeling so much more confident, and so heard as part of a community of other people that are supportive of them and encouraging them. They’re making new friends and being more social.”

These days, Wheel Voices participants (past and present) are celebrating a variety of their own successes, from book launches, to stand-up comedy gigs and video projects. They’re defying stereotypes, and inspiring audiences to embrace inclusion of disability on stage and, more importantly, off stage.

“Most of [the Super Voices] stories have been based in real experiences,” says Cohen. “But we’re a theatre company, so we’re trying to train the artists to understand how an audience is impacted by all kinds of information—what makes a good story arc, where the dramatic arc of the story really resides, and when to let the other parts go. Often we start with telling personal stories, but certainly there’s embellishment and there’s creativity.”

In Super Voices, it’s clear that storytelling is a superpower in itself.  And it’s also the legacy of Realwheels’ founder James Sanders, who is currently on leave from the company to focus on his health and his family. After all, it was Sanders who always said, “Never let the truth to get in the way of a good story.”

Super Voices plays Friday, June 12 at 7:00pm and Saturday, June 13 at 4:00pm at the Roundhouse Performance Centre (181 Roundhouse Mews). ASL interpretation and audio description are offered for the June 13th performance.

Tickets for Super Voices are pay-what-you-can at: http://supervoices.bpt.me

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