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Neuro-inclusive theatre company EPIC Players mounts its most challenging show yet
EPIC Players is truly living up to its name with its upcoming revival of Into the Woods. Founded in 2016 by artistic director Aubrie Therrien, EPIC (which stands for Empower, Perform, Include, Create) is a NYC-based neuro-inclusive theatre company, spotlighting a mix of actors and artists with and without disabilities. The troupe's mounting of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's beloved musical at Off Broadway next month is its largest production to date, with more than 50 company members working on and backstage. Eighty percent of the cast are neurodiverse or have a physical disability.
"Into the Woods gives our artists the chance to play big, classic Broadway characters from a score that they love," says Therrien, adding that opportunities like this are "almost always denied to them" elsewhere.
The company's journey Into the Woods has been a bumpy one. EPIC began planning this show in 2019, but the pandemic shutdown followed by the revival at New York City Center Encores! postponed its plans.
The latter's transfer to Broadway delayed the project further, but also gave its actors a chance to see and be inspired by the production. Through a partnership with the Harriet Tubman Effect Institution, EPIC secured subsidized tickets to the Broadway mounting. Several EPIC company members waited by the stage door to chat about their plans for Into the Woods with the stars of the show, including Brian d'Arcy James, Sara Bareilles and Phillipa Soo. Some of the Broadway cast even kept in touch, following and interacting with the EPIC actors on social media.
Because of its casting, EPIC's Into the Woods feels different from other productions, presenting a fairy-tale community that's truly inclusive. Most of the leads are played by actors on the autism spectrum, though Sam Langshteyn, who plays Cinderella's Prince, is Deaf. Behind the scenes, the show's music director Shane Dittmar is blind and has memorized the entire score. (Dittmar also serves as an access consultant for the National Tour of Into the Woods.) Some members of the cast recently performed a medley of songs from the musical at 54 Below as part of a neuro-inclusive cabaret.
"The brilliance of this musical is that it really shows the flaws as well as the beauty of the human condition," says Therrien, who is directing. "With our particular artists, who are bringing these characters to life and bringing part of themselves into that, you see it's so much more nuanced."
EPIC has grown exponentially over the past few years, expanding from a 20-member group to 80 with a growing waiting list. During the shutdown, the company offered virtual workshops and live-streamed performances, which helped expand its visibility and the reach of its programming. The company recently opened an outpost in Los Angeles and hopes to continue to branch out.
In collaboration with the New York City Department of Education, EPIC recently launched a program for teens called EPIC Jr., which offers high schoolers with disabilities the opportunity to attend shows and participate in workshops. In conjunction with Into the Woods, EPIC Jr. will present Lost in the Woods, a devised production that shares the mainstage show's set and marks many of the students' stage debuts.
EPIC Players is also dedicated to inclusivity in the audience. The company is partnering with several New York organizations, including TDF, to welcome theatregoers with disabilities. "We're trying to live our mission of representation—nothing about us without us—and really opening up access to all of these communities," says Therrien. EPIC even won a competitive TDF Accessibility Program Plus Grant to provide captioning at select Into the Woods performances.
And this is just the start of a busy season. This summer, EPIC will present its inaugural neurodiverse playwriting festival, so members of the community can tell their own stories. "It really starts in the writers' room," Therrien says.
As the entire theatre industry strives to diversify, EPIC has become a sought-after resource for those looking to authentically cast characters with disabilities. EPIC also assists company members who pursue other performing opportunities. Company member Ethan Homan, who plays Rapunzel's Prince's Steward in Into the Woods, recently appeared in an episode of CBS' TV series Blue Bloods, and a representative from EPIC was on set to help liaise and support.
As Into the Woods heads into its final weeks of rehearsals, Therrien is excited for audiences to see what the company can do. "We hold our actors to high standards. We pay them. We are not drama therapists; we are a professional company," as she shared in a previous interview.
"Sondheim is incredibly difficult, and our artists bring me to tears almost every rehearsal," Therrien says. "EPIC is like a family to our company members, and I think that's what Act II of Into the Woods is about. You find your chosen family within the woods, the people who see you for who you are and help you shine."
Into the Woods runs at A.R.T./New York Theatres from June 8-18. Click here to buy tickets.
Top image: Sam Langshteyn and Carly Hayes rehearsing Into the Woods. Photo courtesy of EPIC Players.
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