Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Canadian theatre troupe with disabled actors to mount play about playwright Arthur Miller's son with Down syndrome

From the Vancouver Courier in Canada:

Playing a character with a disability can be a boon for a professional actor's career, but in Theatre Terrific's newest play, a character with Down syndrome will be played by a man with Down syndrome.

The Secret Son: The Story Arthur Miller Didn't Want Told combines conventions of Greek tragedy with the aesthetics of Tim Burton (The Nightmare Before Christmas, Edward Scissorhands) to explore late playwright Arthur Miller's decision to hide the existence of his son Daniel, who was born with Down syndrome, from his personal and private life.

Following Theatre Terrific's mandate, a cast that's diverse in age, race and ability will bring the story to life. It includes an actor in a wheelchair, another who is deaf and another who is dyslexic.

Following its mandate of casting actors who are diverse in ability, Theatre Terrific mounts The Secret Son: The Story Arthur Miller Didn't Want Told at the Roundhouse Community Arts Centre April 22 to 25.

"These universal stories belong to everybody," said Susanna Uchatius, who wrote and directs The Secret Son. "In the telling of them, why can we not use a broad array [of actors]? That's the remarkable thing about working with a really diverse ensemble, it's negotiating the human element so it can be clearly understood and says something and is relevant to everybody."

Uchatius was reading the Greek tragedy of Agamemnon, in which the King of Argos chooses to sacrifice his daughter so he can destroy his wife's lover, when she stumbled across an article about Miller's secret son in Vanity Fair magazine.

She was shocked that Miller, who wrote such moralistic plays as The Crucible, Death of a Salesman and All My Sons, chose to institutionalize his son and erase him from his life until Miller was on his deathbed. The story inspired her to write a play exploring the value of private and public honour.

"What do you perceive your public honour to be? What is that?" Uchatius said. "Why is there a difference between the two? Why would I do something publicly that I would not do privately?"

The Secret Son features an author--not Miller--who's trying to write a Greek tragedy, but members of the chorus start leading the other actors astray. The play also includes two Daniels.

Jonah Killoran, a man who has Down syndrome who has previously acted in Theatre Terrific's Fringe Festival productions, plays the Daniel hidden in the chorus.

Parents of adult children with developmental disabilities started Theatre Terrific in 1985 to provide another form of recreation for their kids. But when Uchatius became artistic director of the company in 2005, she emphasized quality productions. All of the actors audition and are paid, and they don't do plays about disability, says Uchatius, but explore broad issues such as sexual worth and ownership of time.

At the end of Theatre Terrific's shows, audience members typically stay in their seats, so she asks them if they want to talk to the actors.

"They're very clumsy questions, but that's just wonderful and OK because they want to question," Uchatius said. "When you see someone and they're different, how do you negotiate that without being gratuitous or charitable, but on an equal ground."

The Secret Son: The Story Arthur Miller Didn't Want Told plays at the Roundhouse Community Arts Centre at Pacific and Davie April 22 to 25 at 8 p.m., with pay-what-you-can matinees on April 23 and 25 at 2 p.m.