OHSU UCEDD Launches Fully Inclusive Theater Company Production for Youth with and Without Disabilities

September 17, 2013

Emerging Leaders Players (ELP) is the first fully inclusive West Coast-based theater group for youth and adolescents (ages 13-30) with and without disabilities that live in and nearby Portland, Oregon. ELP is a part of a larger group of transition services offered through the University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities (UCEDD) located within the Institute on Development & Disability (IDD) at Oregon Health and Science University. 

Emerging Leaders Northwest (ELNW) offers community and web-based information, training and self-advocacy through its resource center and provides leadership skills for youth with disabilities. ELNW trainings and events focus on living a healthy lifestyle, having healthy relationships, graduating from high school and going on to college, standing up for your rights, living independently and getting a job. More than 1,000 youths with disabilities throughout Oregon have participated in trainings and events put on by ELNW since the program was founded in the fall of 2007.

Two years ago ELNW members were asked to write, direct and perform two one-act plays about what the world would be like without the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Audiences loved these productions and the Leaders discovered a lot of theatrical talent within their group.  It was from this experience that ELNW decided to develop a theater project that would also serve as a community education event.  Thus the idea for Emerging Leaders Players (ELP) was born.

First a production team was formed, which included both youth with and without disabilities, as well as disability service providers and theatrical professionals.  Players would participate in all aspects of production, from building sets, helping with costumes, and acting out parts in the final production.

Each person's participation in these productions (both established and original) offered many valuable experiences in theatre and acting. More importantly though, teenagers and young adults discovered a new way to learn and develop important skills to live independently while also educating and engaging the community; helping to change the way people think about and perceive disability.

After reviewing several plays, the ELP production team chose to move forward with Neil Simon's "Fools." This play was chosen not only because the team felt that a comedy would be fun for both its participants and audience alike , but because of its message. The play draws on contemporary themes of people breaking cultural barriers and challenging societal assumptions. Players made the connections between celebrating, "who we really are," rather than being defined by what society says about us. Some community members questioned the team's decision to do a play about characters that are cursed into believing they are "stupid". However, team members felt that this content was precisely the reason they wanted to do the play. As Emerging Leader Emily Holmes states:

Specifically, the characters in this play are fools, not because of the way they think and see things but because they let someone else tell them how to think about themselves. Someone else told them they were stupid and they believed it and never questioned it for hundreds of years. This story is very similar to that of people with disabilities. People with disabilities are told how to think about themselves by people without disabilities. It is as though persons with disabilities, as the characters in the play, have also been under a curse. They are taught that they are slow and unintelligent because their brains or bodies work differently. Because of the way they look or move they are told to leave restaurants, stores, and other public places. They are told they cannot work, live on their own, or get married, because the way they do things is different from what society considers acceptable. In the last few decades persons with disabilities have come to realize that the issue is not their disability. The issue is that society has made them feel like their disability is the problem when really the issue is attitudes in society. 

The planning team met monthly for more than a year, dealing with every aspect of the production including fundraising, volunteer recruitment, set design, make-up, props and costume design.  These regular meetings culminated with auditions to cast the production.

Casting for this first production turned out to be a significant challenge. Despite a healthy outreach campaign and holding multiple auditions in different locations, they were sparsely attended, resulting in some roles being left unfilled. Staff solved these casting issues by combining several roles and recruiting friends and family. One of the specific challenges to keeping a fully casted play was accommodating people who experienced a variety of disabilities. The director had to be conscious of providing on-the-spot sensitivity training and building empathy within the casted group. Disability-related health problems and transportation also impacted the ability for several people to participate.

To be truly inclusive, a variety of accommodations were needed to ensure that ELP was accessible to players with disabilities of all types. Some players needed to use their script throughout the production due to short-term memory or cognitive processing issues. The lead actor experiences autism and was allowed to "embellish" or go off script as needed. A player with Down syndrome repeated her lines after an assistant whispered them in her ear during rehearsals and performance so that she could successfully participate in the production. Another Player had a significant surgery during the rehearsal phase and instead of dropping out of the production, he/she participated in rehearsals by phone. At the time of the production this person was not fully recuperated and was accommodated by performing her role over an amplified speaker phone.

Emerging Leaders Players' first annual production of Neil Simon's Fools was held on Saturday, June 22nd at the Community of Christ Church in Hillsboro, Oregon. Approximately fifty community members were in attendance. After hundreds of hours of planning, set design parties and rehearsals, ELP's first production and education event was successfully presented to the community. 

After the play, audience members were invited to take part in a panel discussion lead by Emerging Leader, Emily Holmes. This event was developed in tandem with the production so that those involved had the opportunity to think about their experience and prepare for the discussion. The panel included actors, the production manager, and volunteers who discussed what it was like to be a part of ELP and why it is important to provide this kind of inclusive theater experience to youth with and without disabilities. The audience was encouraged to ask questions and give reactions and comments.

While ELP's first production was a daunting task, it was also an adventure that no one involved will ever forget. In fact, the planning team is already gearing up for the next production!