Playwright Judith Thompson teams up with nine performers who have Down syndrome.
“It’s them telling the world what they want the world to know,” says Canadian playwright Judith Thompson in a video documenting the rehearsal process for RARE, a play she directed and co-created with nine performers with Down syndrome. It debuted at the Toronto Fringe Festival last summer to rave reviews, and fortunately was given its current remount at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, recently extended into March.
Those few words from the eloquent Thompson accurately summarize this unique piece of art, in which the performers—ranging from 22 to 37 years of age, from Chinese to Lebanese to black to white, from gay to straight, from shy to bold, from experienced actors to first-timers—take just over one hour to tell audiences about their lives. And Thompson isn’t wrong to talk up her cast’s autonomy. In creating the show, she has taken on the role of an unseen force, helping her co-creators articulate their thoughts while they receive their time in the spotlight.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a cast that fills a stage with as much genuine emotion as RARE‘s ensemble, which consists of Sarah Carney, James Herbert Hazlett, Nicholas David Herd, Michael Liu, Dylan Harman Livaja, Suzanne Love, Nada Marie Christiane Mayla, Krystal Hope Nausbaum, and Andreas Prinz. They all seem to relish their time on stage, and they clearly love the show they’ve created—and each other, too. The sense of camaraderie and support is undeniable: it’s in every touch and look that passes between the cast members as each one steps forward to tell his or her story. Suzanne, who uses her time on stage to celebrate her body and her love of life, emerges as the biggest personality, but it’s support from the others that allows her to shine. They gently rub her arms or her shoulders when a speech impediment interrupts her lines. These elements alone make RARE a rarity, and an incredibly refreshing thing to witness.
Thankfully, there isn’t any of the preciousness that could potentially seep into a play using disabled actors. As the cast emerges onto the stage in white masks, we see them as well-rounded people. The first half is filled with humour, romance, and sadness, as the audience gets to know each performer on a first-name basis. But before the whole thing begins to scream “after school special,” Thompson’s razor-sharp edge cuts in. RARE shows all sides of its cast members. They are people who are afraid of bees as well as the deaths of their parents, people who struggle with finding relationships or sexual partners, people who have experienced the dangers of drugs and bullies, people who can speak five different languages, but who also have a sassy sense of humour. They are people who have goals, and who get angry when their disabilities stand in their way. They know they have Down syndrome, and sometimes, they hate it. RARE is extremely effective at jamming in The Elephant in the Room, in order to stop us from getting too comfortable. It manages to end with the major message that the cast of RARE wants us to know: that choosing to have a baby with Down syndrome is difficult, but worth it.
RARE was born out of The Grace Project: SICK, where Thompson met 23-year-old Nausbaum. It’s the first in a three-year partnership between Thompson and the Young Centre, in which she will create two more shows using actors with disabilities. Toronto is lucky that RARE won’t be as rare in the future.