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Attending Realwheels Acting Academy as a Performer With a Disability

Realwheels Acting Academy, offered by Realwheels Theatre in Vancouver, BC, is the first acting program designed for disabled performers of its kind in North America. I have had the pleasure of being a part of the first ensemble to enroll in the three-year program.

In 2004, I earned a BFA in Theatre at Simon Fraser University. I had passionately immersed myself in the training, and although it was often physically and emotionally challenging with long days and sustained focus, I thoroughly enjoyed every aspect of it. It was one of the best experiences of my life, and I developed valuable insights and transferable skills that would benefit me in future interests and life experiences. Shortly after graduating, however, I had to start paying back my student loans, and I opted to work full-time. As a result of this, as well as mental illness and other life events, I did not pursue further training or a career in theatre.

In 2009, I developed a rare neurological autoimmune illness, and the resulting acquired brain injury, coma, and hospitalization rendered me disabled and requires me to use a power wheelchair. For many years since then, I had been focused on physical rehabilitation, mental health recovery, personal growth, adapting to my impairments, relearning to navigate the world, and finding purpose in this new and very different chapter of my life.

It never occurred to me that I could reenter the theatre community. I cannot remain standing for very long, have limited range of motion in my upper body, fatigue much more easily, and my vocal cords are damaged. Since I have always known acting to be a physical as well as mental and emotional practice, I assumed I was no longer a “suitable” candidate for a place in the world of performing arts. I was also acutely aware of how challenging it is for disabled people to pursue a career in film and theatre, with its history of inaccessibility and lack of inclusion and representation, and was intimidated and fearful.

Then one day, while scrolling through social media, I came across a post inviting disabled actors in BC to audition for a new professional acting program. This three-year program is broken into three terms per year: Acting, Voice, and Movement, with Spring and Summer Workshops, taught by local artists with many years of professional experience in their fields. Classes are held twice a week for 3 hours each class. It is designed to provide artists with disabilities a solid foundation of acting training and preparation for a future in performing arts. The venues are accessible and there is a personal care attendant on hand at each class for those who require assistance. The best part: It’s completely free, generously funded by various organizations in BC and Canada. And an added bonus: A weekly stipend to offset the costs associated with disability.

I couldn’t believe what I was reading! Free training with professional artists, designed specifically for disabled people, and they will even pay me to attend? Is this for real? What’s the catch?

The only “catch” is that it is a pilot program, meaning it may only occur once. If I wanted to be a part of it, I had to act now.

Still, I hesitated. It’s been over 15 years since I performed, and I was rusty. Was I too old? Too disabled? Would I have the energy and stamina? Did I still have the passion for the creative process that I once had? I attended the Open House on Zoom where I learned the details of the program and its mandates, and by the end, I had decided to audition. When I received the invitation to attend, I began to get excited about embarking on a new venture and meeting like-minded people, but I was nervous. It has been years since I was a part of a group, and my experiences have completely changed me. I am far more introverted than I once was, and I suspected I would be older than most of the other students. Would I fit in?

In September 2021, I arrived at the first class of the Acting Term, and was greeted by Karen, our PCA, who held the door so I could enter, then gently and respectfully helped me out of my outerwear so I could get comfortable. I looked around at the other students, and was relieved to see that I was not the only one who used a mobility device, nor was I the only one with a few extra lines on their face and some grey in their hair. Judging by the fidgeting, furtive glances, and awkward introductions, I was also not the only one who was nervous.

Our instructor, Shawn MacDonald, invited us to form a circle and we began with introductions and collaborated on a Community Agreement to ensure that our work together will be inclusive and respectful of each other’s identities and personal needs. Then Shawn led us in a few improvisation games to “break the ice” and warm up for the work ahead. By the end of the first class, we were all feeling more comfortable with one another and looking forward to the classes to come.

As the term continued, we began to gain confidence and step out of our comfort zones, discovering there is power and creativity in that. We continued to grow and develop our skills through the Voice term, led by Alison Matthews, and are now well into the Movement term with Harmony Rose, with a Commedia dell’Arte Masks workshop by Susan Bertoia.

The curriculum is as rich and thorough as any professional program, and the work is as challenging. The difference is in the approach and planning. The instructors have designed their curriculums with adaptations to meet the abilities of all the students, and are always mindful and willing to learn from the students and accommodate any needs that arise. As a result, everyone’s voice shines through and is heard, and we are able to express ourselves in our own unique ways.

One of the things I was worried about was whether, due to my prior training, I would find the lessons challenging enough to hold my interest. While much of the material so far is not new to me, putting it into practice with a different body, voice, and mode of locomotion has been both challenging and fulfilling. In each class, I strive to adapt and learn new ways to practice the work with my limited physicality. As a disabled actor, I am learning how breath and awareness of my anatomy impact my body and my work. This was something I paid little attention to when I was a non-disabled actor because my voice was clear and resonant and my body moved the way I asked it to without issue. This awareness has helped me to discover ways to play my strengths rather than fret over my limitations, and has given me renewed confidence in my physicality.

The best part of the Realwheels Acting Academy is the people. Right from the very start, I have felt welcomed and included by everyone involved, from the staff to the audition panel to the instructors. Our eight-member ensemble includes individuals of various ages, genders, ethnicities, and abilities. Each individual is unique and beautiful, and brings their own lived experiences and perspectives to the table. There is a profound level of empathy and mindfulness within this group that I find refreshing. It creates an environment of safety and comfort that allows each individual to work within the capacity they are able to on any given day, to simply be who they are, where they are, without judgment or pressure.

The Realwheels Acting Academy has reignited my passion for creativity and the theatre, and given me new sense of purpose and a long-term goal to pursue. I have met and thoroughly enjoyed the company of many new people, which has brought a richness to my life. I have also had opportunities to be involved in other projects outside of the program that I otherwise would not have had. I was even paid for one of them. I truly hope this fledgling program will prove to be successful and worth offering again and again for disabled artists hoping to pursue a future in acting. I believe it is a giant step toward greater representation and inclusivity in the arts and entertainment industry.

Realwheels Theatre: https://realwheels.ca/

Realwheels Acting Academy: https://realwheels.ca/academy/

Getty image by fergregory.

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