THEATRE: A joyful surprise that shouldn’t be a surprise

Rising Sun Theatre GigCity EdmontonDevelopmentally disabled people are usually defined by what they can’t do – so it sure is nice when someone comes along who focuses on what they CAN do.

Turns out they can act. They put on a show. They can be entertainers. That’s the word from veteran local theatre impresario Gerry Potter, artistic producer of Rising Sun Theatre, a company exclusively for adults with developmental disabilities, and we ought to believe him; he’s the founder of Workshop West, a well-respected theatre company in this town.

Gerry Potter GigCity Edmonton

Gerry Potter

In his latest gig, promoting the new show “Tales from the Sun” at SKILLS (10408 124 Street) Dec. 13-14, Potter says he’d rather avoid labels for his actors, but it’s right there in the theatre’s mandate: It’s “Edmonton’s differently-abled theatre company.” The PC language may rankle, but there’s a point to be made. So called disabilities can be seen as gifts.

“One of things you find is that people who have been labelled as having disabilities sometimes don’t really have that much of disability,” Potter says. “And also sometimes they make up for challenges in one area with strengths in another. One of the things I found is that a lot of people with developmental disabilities have strong imaginative lives and great imaginations. They can create really well.”

They created this Christmas show, for instance, Tales from the Sun, from a combination of script and improvisation, under the direction of Stephanie Leaf. Some of the actors can’t read.

It’s like doing theatre with anybody, Potter says. “It’s still about using your body and your voice and your emotions and your experiences and turning it into something that has some meaning and some impact that’s positive. It’s not as different as you might think, the process of creating a story.”

Potter, by happenstance, actually worked with differently abled adults in theatre at the beginning of his career, in Ottawa in the ‘70s. Many years later, after leaving Workshop West, he got involved with SKILLS, an area support group for developmentally disabled people and their families, and with a group of actors wrote and produced their first show in 2004, The Giraffe Who Thought He Could Fly.

At the risk of affixing labels, some of his current troupe members have Down Syndrome; some are more “functional” than others. There are similarities in working with children, the producer says, but for the heavy content his actors sometimes come up with: prejudice against the disabled, along with adult themes of love and sexuality. One of the troupe’s previous shows, Stories About Us, was autobiographical. This one is lighter, more comic.

“We underestimate them frequently,” says Potter. “It’s a surprise that shouldn’t be a surprise that people with developmental disabilities have feelings and imaginations and experiences and which are similar to the rest of us. They’re the same as the rest of us. That shouldn’t be a surprise, but unfortunately in this society we ghettoize and shunt these people aside. We pride ourselves on achievement so much and attach so much value to that, and it’s a joyous discovery for people to think, well, maybe people shouldn’t always put so much value on conventional measures of achievement. When people can relax a little bit and resist that idea, it’s a pretty joyful experience.”

Admission to the performances at the SKILLS space, 10408-124 St, Friday, Dec. 13 at 7 pm and Saturday, Dec. 14 at 2 pm, is “pay what you can.”

Top photo: Sarah Dans, left, rehearses with music director Dhana Cartmell; photo below: Rising Sun Theatre cast runs through a number.

Rising Sun Theatre GigCity Edmonton