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Meet EPIC Players, a "neuro-inclusive" theatre company mounting The Tempest
"Oh brave new world that has such people in't," declares Miranda toward the end of The Tempest. For the EPIC Players, who are performing the Shakespeare classic at the Flea Theater, that line has a special resonance. Of the 20 cast members, 16 have developmental disabilities, mostly autism.
"Most companies only cast people with disabilities if it is required for the role, and sometimes not even then," says EPIC's executive artistic director Aubrie Therrien. "We seek out people with disabilities." The results, she says, have surprised people. "We hold our actors to high standards. We pay them. We are not drama therapists; we are a professional company."
Therrien's initial inspiration for such a troupe occurred about a dozen years ago when, as a young performer, she visited a fifth-grade special education class taught by her mother. They were reading Roald Dahl's children's book The BFG, and Therrien adapted it into a play for the students to perform. "They blossomed," she recalls. Later, she worked with adults with developmental disabilities as the executive program director at DreamStreet Theatre Company, a role that earned her a New Yorker of the Week profile on NY1. In 2016 she launched EPIC (an acronym for Empower. Perform. Include. Create), which she calls a "neuro-inclusive company," meaning shows feature a mix of actors with and without disabilities. The Tempest is EPIC's fourth production.
"It is a brave new world -- a bold idea for a theatre company to be so inclusive," says Carly Hayes, who plays Miranda. She was introduced to EPIC Players when she attended their production of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown last year. "It was awesome," she says. "Every member of the cast embodied their character so faithfully, and I was captivated by the obvious camaraderie. I wanted to be a part of that."
Hayes, who is one of the show's four cast members without a disability, had to adjust to EPIC's unique process. There are three directors instead of the usual one. And while most Off-Off Broadway shows only rehearse for four weeks or so, The Tempest's cast has been practicing for almost five months. That's because EPIC takes the time to learn about every cast member in order to figure out what kind of support each one requires to thrive. Even the choice of play was dictated, in part, by the needs as well as the talents of the performers. According to Therrien,The Tempest is "important for us, because there is such a variety of things to do in it. It really gives everyone in our company a chance to shine. If somebody has trouble with the language, there's a lot of opportunity for movement or sound or song."
In recent years programs such as TDF's autism-friendly performances have made theatre more accessible to audiences with sensory sensitivities, but there are still limited opportunities for actors with developmental disabilities to get on stage. That's why EPIC's company members are so glad the troupe exists. "We don't usually get the chance to perform professionally," admits Anton Spivack, a performer on the autism spectrum who plays Prospero, a character he says he understands. "Prospero is very difficult to like," he says. "He's overprotective of his daughter. He bullies Ariel and Caliban, although they're his only companions. He's so focused on revenge that he winds up alone. There are times I've felt like Prospero: People I wanted to impress wouldn't speak to me; I felt left out, and I wanted to get back at them."
Spivack, who has also written a play about people on the spectrum called Mixed Messages, is excited that EPIC's productions let audiences see "what people with disabilities are capable of doing."
Therrien agrees. "They break stereotypes," she says. "It's also important for audience members with disabilities to see themselves represented on stage in respectful and professional ways, and sharing the stage with neuro-typical actors." That's why, when Miranda gives her famous speech about "how beauteous mankind is," the house lights go up, so everyone in the theatre feels included.
Jonathan Mandell is a drama critic and journalist based in New York. Visit his blog at NewYorkTheater.me or follow him on Twitter at @NewYorkTheater. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Top image: Ben Rosloff and Carly Hayes in The Tempest. Photos by Ric Sechrest.
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