August 18, 2019

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Putting a spotlight on disabilities

Actors let personal health experiences, physical differences take centre stage at Fringe Festival

In 2016, Mitch Krohn survived a stroke during a spinal surgery.

That same year, Dianna Rasing also survived a stroke while doing laps at Pan Am Pool.

Through mutual friends, the pair connected.

“We chatted out our frustrations and stroke recovery,” says Krohn, who is no stranger to Winnipeg stages.

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In 2016, Mitch Krohn survived a stroke during a spinal surgery.

That same year, Dianna Rasing also survived a stroke while doing laps at Pan Am Pool.

#disabilitywpgfringe

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Click for details on showtimes, to read a description of the show and the Free Press review, and to submit your star rating.

Strokes of Genius, Venue 23, One88

My Frozen Heart: A Comic Tragedy, Venue 23, One88

Anna and the Substitute Teacher, Venue 3, Alto-Portage Place

Quirky, Venue 24, Platform Centre

Eye Candy, Venue 21, MTYP - Mainstage

Heart of Stone, Venue 28, Forth Projects

The ADHD Project, Venue 7, Cinematheque

So, Do You Want to Talk about It?, Venue 8, Rachel Browne Theatre

(Art)ist, Venue 2, MTC Up the Alley

Monica vs. the Internet, Venue 11, Centennial Concert Hall

LUB DUB, Venue 9, School of Contemporary Dancers

Tickling the Dragon's Tail, Venue 9, School of Contemporary Dancers

Trendsettlers: Episode IV, Venue 5, Son of Warehouse

Estee Polnau​, Kids Fringe

Through mutual friends, the pair connected.

"We chatted out our frustrations and stroke recovery," says Krohn, who is no stranger to Winnipeg stages.

"Next thing we knew, we were like, ‘Let’s start writing sketch comedy about the health care system and stroke recovery and rehab.’ It became a therapeutic tool."

And now, Strokes of Genius (Venue 23) is a sketch comedy show at the Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival — one of a whole crop of works featuring artists with disabilities. There are so many shows, in fact, that fellow stroke survivor Hannah Foulger, who also has a show in this year’s festival, decided to promote them under the banner #disabilitywpgfringe.

"It just seems like there were so many of us doing shows that I felt like we needed to celebrate that," she says.

Foulger survived her stroke nine years ago, when she was 20. Meeting and finding a mentor in Debbie Patterson — the venerated local playwright/actor/director who lives with multiple sclerosis and has become a driving force in disability theatre with her company, Sick + Twisted — helped Foulger find not only her voice as an artist with a disability, but a community of like-minded people creating powerful work.

SASHA SEFTER / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Playwright/actor/director Debbie Patterson, who lives with multiple sclerosis, has become a driving force in disability theatre.</p>

SASHA SEFTER / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Playwright/actor/director Debbie Patterson, who lives with multiple sclerosis, has become a driving force in disability theatre.

"She’s been a key person for me," Foulger says. "The more I’ve developed my writing style, the more I’ve realized it’s a key part of who I am and it makes my writing interesting and specific."

Foulger believes artists with disabilities are able to offer unique perspectives on the world around us, on our mortality, and the limits of our bodies.

"I think those restraints actually make us more creative," she says.

In Krohn’s case, living with a disability has altered his approach to comedy.

TREVOR HAGAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES</p><p>As a member of the Crosseyed Rascals improv group, Mitch Krohn (left) was into slapstick physical comedy, but after his stroke his role has changed.</p>

TREVOR HAGAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

As a member of the Crosseyed Rascals improv group, Mitch Krohn (left) was into slapstick physical comedy, but after his stroke his role has changed.

"I’m with the Crosseyed Rascals as well, and I used to be the Dick Van Dyke slapstick physical comedy guy. Now, I have to rely totally on my wit and character," he says.

Foulger’s tragicomedy My Frozen Heart (Venue 23) — which is about a "female filmmaker set on making the perfect, definitely-not-autobiographical film about a teen whose mother is living with a disability" — will feature a relaxed performance on July 21 for audience members who may be sensitive to light, sound and movement.

"That’s something I’m still learning," says Krohn, who is producing Foulger’s show. "My disability has allowed me to open my eyes to other disabilities and further needs for accessibility."

Comedian Adam Schwartz (Aspergers: A Tale of a Social Misfit) has teamed up with Gemini-nominated comedy writer Aimée Beaudoin for the family-friendly comedy Anna and the Substitue Teacher (Venue 3), one of two plays at about autism at this year’s Fringe. The other is Aiden Zeglinski’s coming-of-age one-man show, Quirky (Venue 24).

Anna is a young girl with autism who must save the day when her favourite teacher is replaced by an evil substitute.

"Growing up on the autism spectrum, I was often in denial about having autism and it made for lots and lots of sadness," Schwartz says.

"I always wanted to have a strong character who was OK with their autism to show that being different is a good thing, and have them be strong in a way I wasn’t. I wanted to have a female character because autism is often portrayed as a male thing. Anyone can be autistic and autism can be a beautiful thing, even though being different can sometimes be hard."

TREVOR HAGAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>A group of artists working under the banner #disabilitywpgfringe are not hiding the things that make up who they are.</p>

TREVOR HAGAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

A group of artists working under the banner #disabilitywpgfringe are not hiding the things that make up who they are.

The ADHD Project (Venue 7), a storytelling show written and performed by Hamilton’s Carlyn Rhamey, is also about a little girl who ultimately embraces neurodiversity as a superpower— except, in this case, that little girl is her.

Rhamey was diagnosed with ADHD at 7.

"ADHD is not as invisible a disability as we’d maybe like it to be: kids could always tell," she says.

It’s still part of her life; a common misconception is that ADHD only affects kids.

“I think our stories have a special way of being unique but also very relatable, because the struggles we go through are very universal.” – Carlyn Rhamey, writer and performer of The ADHD Project

"Now, as a grown-up, if I’m late or disorganized or struggling in a way that a neurotypical wouldn’t struggle, I do need to be open about it to get accommodation for it."

Being open also allows for interesting theatre.

"I think our stories have a special way of being unique but also very relatable, because the struggles we go through are very universal," Rhamey says.

Vancouver’s Stéphanie Morin-Robert (Blindside, The Merkin Sisters) returns to fringe this year with a new comedy, Eye Candy (Venue 21), which is about her first pregnancy and 56-hour labour with her 16-month-old daughter, Olive, with whom she’ll share the stage.

Vancouver’s Stéphanie Morin-Robert wrote a fringe comedy about losing her eye.</p>

Vancouver’s Stéphanie Morin-Robert wrote a fringe comedy about losing her eye.

Morin-Robert lost her left eye to cancer when she was two years old, something she tackled head-on with Blindside. Eye Candy is something of a sequel: after all, pregnancy, labour and becoming a mother are also experiences that change mind and body in both visible and invisible ways.

"For me, (losing an eye) was not a visible disability in that it’s obvious, but a sight visibility and having to come to terms with that," she says. "While it’s something that doesn’t really stop me from doing a lot, but it has resulted in things such as social anxiety.

"Now doing a show about becoming a mother and how that affects me and echoes that experience, I’m realizing all these things that do come up. My show is about breaking boundaries and talking about things openly. Something that’s new for me is my awareness of post-partum depression, and that being a whole other world and realm I’m navigating and learning about."

Fringe is the perfect place to open a dialogue about our shared experiences, she says.

"The opportunity to connect with other artists and audience members who can relate, and giving them the courage to open up and share, is quite healing."

jen.zoratti@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @JenZoratti

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Jen Zoratti

Jen Zoratti
Columnist

Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and co-host of the paper's local culture podcast, Bury the Lede.

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