Canadian playwright Judith Thompson’s RARE debuts on July 5 as part of the Toronto Fringe Festival. The play stars nine adult actors with Down syndrome. Through a montage of monologues, members of the ensemble tell their stories in their own words. While Judith helped to curate and fine-tune their work, the play was mostly written by its performers. BLOOM spoke with Judith about the production process, and what audiences can expect. Photo by John Gundy.
BLOOM: Describe how the play was written.
Judith Thompson: We basically start for weeks and weeks of rehearsals just sitting in a circle. I’ll say ‘Let’s talk about childhood memories.’ Everybody has a story. And I have to have a script assistant on a computer getting this down.
Sometimes I ask things like ‘If I feel like a wet street on a hot day, what do you feel like?’ Their answers have been amazingly creative. Nick felt like tall sexy grass. All their images are incredible. James felt like a diving eagle. They just came up with these themselves. It’s absolutely important to me that it’s their words. They might give me a few and I’ll keep asking until I get one that really reflects who I think they are.
BLOOM: What have been the joys and challenges of working on this project?
Judith Thompson: The joys are daily because there’s so much good humour. There is, in (the Down syndrome) community, a greater emotional openness, I will say that. That is a difference that I see…They’ll give you a hug and say I love you. They’re open and out there.
We’ve been instructed to be closed in order to succeed in this society we’ve constructed. We can’t suddenly burst into tears; we have to shove it down. Even though members of the theatre community have more emotional access, the performers that I’ve met with Down syndrome – I think ‘Wow, you should lead theatre classes.’ But that same emotional availability though, if somebody’s upset, can cause problems. Somebody who doesn’t have Down syndrome may hold it in or hold a grudge, but in this community they just burst into tears right there and fall on the floor. That’s a challenge because we have to keep going with rehearsal. I never lower my expectations. We just have a hug, and we talk about it, and then we move on.
BLOOM: What are some of the things you’ve learned through this experience?
Judith Thompson: Before, I tended to just think ‘Oh, (people with Down syndrome) are God’s special angels,’ and painted them all as lovely and warm and sweet. I’ve learned to think ‘No, they’re as complicated and prickly and difficult and wonderful as you or me.’
There was a dynamic that had to shift. I was treating them unconsciously like a younger sibling or something. But I’m an adult and so are they… So they’re not cute, don’t condescend to them. They’re people of profound and complex thinking.
BLOOM: What are you hoping the performers will take out of this?
Judith Thompson: That they own it…and that they’re writers as well as performers. That’s why it was really important to me that it’s their words and they create it. Putting them in another show as performers is one thing. But they’re creating it. And so for them to have that agency I think is extraordinary for their confidence generally. They can actually make change and not be passive. So often people with disabilities are made unintentionally to feel passive. But they are making themselves visible. I’m just the guiding hand, and they are out there telling their stories to the world. No one is telling it for them.
BLOOM: Could you give me a couple of examples of what stories performers will be telling?
Judith Thompson: One of the performers talked about how his greatest wish is to have sex. He’s 22, he’s allowed to say that. And I’m not sanitizing anything that way. And nobody laughs. I mean yes, he’s a 22-year-old male, of course he does.
They also talk about the fact that about 97 per cent of parents, when they find out their baby is going to have Down syndrome, terminate the pregnancy … Krystal actually wrote a letter to pregnant women that she delivers on the stage that is so heart wrenching, and it’s basically saying ‘Keep your Down syndrome baby.’
They talk about their struggles. And they’re very much invested in their families. Some of the parents have said ‘Why is it such a serious play?’ And I’ve said ‘It’s every bit as funny as it is serious, but I’m not here to entertain.’ There’s enough of that around. There’s nothing wrong with entertainment, but that’s not what I do. Theatre has to hold a mirror up, it has to illuminate, it has to make what is invisible visible, and what is silenced, heard. And they are doing it, in their voices.
RARE tickets can be ordered online.