Wilmington’s Theater for All for provides a much-needed artistic outlet for people with development or physical disabilities
By Kim Henry
We all have our favorite singer, actor, writer. We feel their passion bursting forth from the mic, stage or book and we are so glad that they have found their calling. The alignment of the artist and their art is a part of why creativity touches the human soul so deeply, for both the artist and the viewer. Yet, in a world designed by and built for neurotypical, able-bodied people, accessing the arts is yet another challenge that people with developmental and physical differences face. This is where Theatre for All (TFA) comes in, a theatre company that empowers adults with disabilities to discover, grow and express their artistic selves. It’s a nonprofit that enables this diverse community to experience self expression through a wide range of artistic mediums and to be validated for all that they are. In doing so TFA is also reframing disability and overturning outdated stereotypes that many in the audience might not have realized they even had.
TFA’s pioneering project includes four official performance companies, an outreach program that accesses around 80 students with disabilities a week in schools across New Hanover County (at no cost) and a leadership program that provides training and employment within the arts for the graduates. It’s a program that hopes to see more efforts in this area across America. Why? Because everyone deserves access to the arts.
It began back in 2015 when yours truly (yes, I am a co-founder) and Gina Gambony went into Laney high school to do a semester of theatre workshops with two classes of exceptional students. It was no surprise that everyone had an amazing time. Many students surpassed the expectations of their teachers, and even themselves. Nonverbal students moved their bodies, natural comedians made entire classrooms cry with laughter, poets were born and singing voices unleashed what had never before had a space to shine. Tears were shed, amazed heads were shaken and, at the end of the semester, around half of the students expressed to us that this was it. They had found their “thing” and they wanted to join a theatre company. “Great,” I said, “this is a thriving theatre town, let’s see which company you can join.” We looked around. Crickets.
Long story short: TFA was established as an ongoing theatre company for people with disabilities. Seven years later, and with the dedication of a handful of incredible people, it is now an independent nonprofit that is steadily changing the world—or at least for everyone involved, whether they’re a performer, board member, volunteer, family member, teacher or audience participant…. and we all know how the ripple effect works. TFA is more than just a theatre company. It’s a family—a theatre family united by a love of play, music, movement, connection, communication, stories, tears and laughter.
All of these elements combine to create two completely unique performances a year, currently held at the Hannah Block Community Arts Center. TFA’s dance company and choir open the plays. It also has a showcase performed by the Academy company that trains with local and national artists for a season, exploring new performance tools and skills. Then the Performance company presents the main play, which is always an amalgamation of the actors’ and directors’ ideas, interests and characters. Dylan Patterson (also a co-founder, President of the Board and volunteer since day one) explains how members switch companies throughout a one-year period so that everyone benefits from being in both companies.
But let’s meet some of the members and see what they have to say.
“During Covid, I lost my job and many services and would have been more isolated than ever if it wasn’t for my Theatre for All family,” shares Saquoia Goodwin with her enigmatic smile. Saquoia has a voice that silences auditoriums and would rarely be heard if it wasn’t for TFA. “Theatre for All gives me an opportunity to express myself as a writer and an actor. It’s literally changed my life,” says Joseph Sisk, who has been in a wheelchair all of his life due to cerebral palsy. I’ve personally been out with Sisk and experienced a waiter automatically turning to me to ask what he wants to order. Little did they know that Sisk is a published author, has performed dance routines, writes his own poetry and memorizes the lines of his own characters. It’s not the waiter’s fault that this is all too often a misguided default setting when interacting with a person in a wheelchair, but it’s seriously time for it to change.
Coming to a TFA show (which holds the highest integrity in terms of the quality of content and production) allows the audience to experience people with disabilities in a new way—as the whole, interesting, talented, funny, unique individuals that they are, with ideas, fears and passions just like everyone else. And TFA is more than just a place for them—it’s also a platform that gives all of us access to experience their incredible talent.
To attend a performance, donate or get involved, visit theaterforall.org for more information.