Above and Beyond with Interact Theatre

I have been a fan of the Interact Theatre Company since first seeing them perform in 1993. This was at the newly opened Minnesota History Center, where they had just performed “My Choice, Your Decision,” a satire on group home life, for a disability arts conference. Interact was one a small group of performers and activists, speaking on the emerging role of disability in the arts. Though I remember this event largely as a panel discussion with various arts experts, Interact stood apart as a theatre group that did art first, with a social message – a forceful disability message – coming second. There was no missing their satire of life in the group home or the often ridiculous monotony of the workshop, but the greatest impression you felt in the audience was of actors hitting their strides, finding their voices through telling their life stories through humor and drama.

Building on the experiences of its performers has been Interact Theatre’s strength for years. Supported by professional actors with formal theatre training, the theatre company now produces two original, fully staged performances a year that generally run for five weeks. Just as in other professional theaters, actors are paid for rehearsal time and throughout the show’s run. Frequent touring shows, pulled from a repertoire of smaller theater pieces and excerpts, are scheduled throughout the year, and actors are paid for these as well. Outside of productions and tours, the theater company brings in guest artists for movement classes, technique and improvisation. The company often seeks opportunities to collaborate with outside actors, dancers and vocalists.

I recently returned from a trip with Interact Theatre to a disability arts festival in Cheltenham, England. Disability Arts has officially emerged, with 2003 being celebrated at the European Year of the Disabled. I went along to shoot a behind-the-scenes documentary of the group on their Minnesota invasion of Great Britain. The video production was supported financially by Advocating Change Together and the University of Minnesota’s Institute on Community Integration. Funds are still being sought for post-production.

Still making art and challenging society’s perceptions of disability, Interact Theatre has been on an upward trajectory for over a decade, growing from comedic role-plays of group home life to high-production cabarets and classical Greek drama. I have had the pleasure of shooting a number of their shows over the years and I am always impressed with how they continue to grow artistically and attract such highly talented staff and actors. Each show offers something fresh, and, as a staple of an Interact Theatre performance, they are sure to make someone in the audience uncomfortable with their portrayal of disability.

“Cloud Cuckooland,” Interact Theatre’s biting satirical play about the times we live in, is no exception, though the audience in Cheltenham, comprising many disability artists and activists, was less likely to be shocked. (Mat Frazer, a high-energy stand-up comedian and rapper, and an MC for the festival, began the evening with a nod to America: “Christopher Reeve may be Superman, but he’s a Crip-Tonight!”) Written by Interact in conjunction with Minnesota actor and storyteller Kevin Kling, and based on Aristophanes’ The Birds,” the play is a timely satire set in the most powerful country on earth, where greed, fear and war threaten to erode man’s happiness. As viewed through a funhouse mirror, this world is peopled with greedy CEOs, Gods, warmongers, charlatans and a bumbling imperialistic leader. Hephaestus, the only disabled God in the Pantheon (played by Kevin Kling) is banished to the underworld by Hera because he is imperfect. There he meets evildoers and works on a throne that will trap his mother forever. Hovering above is the utopian world of the Birds, living in peace and harmony until man’s crass materialism corrupts their world. This is a theatrical spectacle with original music, striking visual images, with Kevin Kling in a pivotal role as he pleas for sanity in an insane world.

While many of the performances at the festival were solo or two-person acts, “Cloud Cuckooland” featured a cast of 25 artists representing a wide range of disabilities. (This was made possible by support from the U.S. Fund for Artists and International Festivals and from the Above & Beyond Festival, each funding one half of the expenses.) Billy Tomaszewski, a man who joined Interact five years ago with limited speaking skills and labeled a “behavior problem” by this support staff, revels in the role of the devil. “Mother” Mary Thomas, now 87, plays the role of Hera, wife of Zeus. Eriq Nelson, a theatre instructor with Interact, plays “Shrub,” the hapless leader banished by Zeus to live with the birds. At one point in the festival, Eriq ran onto stage dressed in all-American colors as “Shrub” and asked “Where’s my lapdog Tony [Blair]?” Actors with physical disabilities, mental and cognitive disabilities, actors without disabilities, all inform the work of Interact Theatre. Some actors pantomime, others screech, some sing and dance, and others deliver complicated lines. The magic of Interact, onstage and behind the scenes, is the harmony they find among the many differences. Unfortunately, no other performances at the festival featured this kind of collaboration, or even showcased artists with developmental disabilities.

Winston Churchill asserted that the United States and Great Britain are two countries separated by a common language, but with a few modifications this was not an issue for Interact. (One last minute change, in the name of artistic license and audience comprehension, involved substituting “wanker” for “dickhead” in Shrub’s dialogue with the press.) The language of discrimination based on disability is common between both countries, with our telethons and imagery of pity, and was certainly not foreign to the many other countries participating in the festival. Interact also performed “Madame Josette’s Nothing Sacred Cabaret,” a musical on death and disability set in 1920s Paris, and even with Josette Antomarche’s Parisian accent, nothing was lost on the audience.

Kevin Kling’s contribution went beyond his role as Hephaestus, the disabled god in “Cloud Cuckooland,” as he told stories of growing up in Minnesota and gave his first-ever storytelling workshop. We in Minnesota know of Kevin as an actor, writer, storyteller, and have heard him on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered,” but it surprised me to see just how many people in England knew of Kevin’s work. His workshop was filled to capacity. David Roache, a gifted storyteller who performed his “Church of 80% Sincerity” show at the festival, exchanged ideas with Kevin on the craft of storytelling and the role disability plays in the arts. With luck we’ll see a collaboration occur in the near future.

Where there any surprises on this trip? Only that, contrary to popular belief, everyone found the English people friendly and outgoing and their food excellent. (As a student in England nearly 20 years ago, I can assure you the food then was far from excellent.) Good English food? An international Disability Arts festival? Perceptions about disability have certainly changed over the past decade, in large part because of groups like Interact Theatre, doing their art and occasionally make audiences uncomfortable.

Jerry Smith is a Media Producer with the University of Minnesota’s Institute on Community Integration. He is currently seeking completion funds for the documentary “Above and Beyond with Interact Theatre Company.” You can reach Jerry at (612) 624-4336.