When you go to the theater, concert hall or gallery, you don’t often encounter an artist who’s blind, hearing impaired or in a wheelchair. But a confluence of events in Vermont this weekend will make it clear — artfully, powerfully so — that a community of artists with disabilities exists and is making its collective voice heard.
Lyena Strelkoff’s Caterpillar Soup is “about the transformational power of loss,” the California actor says in a phone interview from Putney. Strelkoff has been there for the past week performing and running writing workshops at Sandglass Theater, and will present her one-woman show at the FlynnSpace this Friday. Her loss? Strelkoff, 42, became paralyzed from the waist down nearly a decade ago when she fell out of a tree and shattered her lower spine. Caterpillar Soup tells the story of the day she fell and the two years that followed, and details her physical, emotional and spiritual journey as well as the evolution of her relationship — she’d just begun dating Dean Purvis (now her husband) before the tree accident. “He was the only witness to my fall,” says Strelkoff, who notes that her work is “at heart a love story.”
Though the show is primarily a storytelling event, Strelkoff does mix in some graceful movement — evident in the performance trailer on YouTube. Dancing upright is about the only thing Strelkoff can’t do, it seems. A cofounder of Ziggurat Theatre Ensemble in Los Angeles, she continues to perform, teach and lead workshops, and has been touring Caterpillar Soup — described by one critic as “searing, honest, irreverently funny and irresistibly uplifting” — since 2004. In Putney, she’s leading “story circles on healing” with community members who live with chronic disability, Strelkoff says. In Burlington this week, she’s teaching an autobiographical writing workshop. “It’s a fascinating process, extraordinary,” she says.
Vermont’s own performing artists may find their self-expression unleashed during a daylong, statewide meet-up on Saturday. Presented by VSA Arts, the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts and Burlington City Arts, the retreat is intended to provide a safe, supportive atmosphere for artists with disabilities. “It’s the first time that we’re gathering artists that we know,” says Judith Chalmer, executive director of VSA Arts and the facilitator of the meet-up, along with Flynn executive director John Killacky. “We will perform for one another, and it will grow into more opportunities for performances after we look at what opportunities and barriers there are.”
Chalmer notes that VSA Arts is about to launch a parallel project for visual artists with disabilities. “We’ll have our first exhibit [in the Amy E. Tarrant Gallery] in conjunction with a performance of the AXIS Dance Company next year at the Flynn,” she says. AXIS, a troupe based in Oakland, Calif., performs with dancers of all abilities. “We’re working toward a festival for artists with disabilities,” Chalmer adds.
Montpelier offers a mini-fest of sorts this Saturday at the Unitarian Church. Organized by pianist Michael Arnowitt, “Here We Are: A Variety Show for People With Disabilities” will feature performances by more than a dozen community members with disabilities including autism, blindness, brain injury and Parkinson’s, according to Arnowitt’s description. The performers are all ages, from students to seventysomethings. The program, too, is nothing if not eclectic, featuring tunes from pop to classical and instruments from wooden spoons to piano.
“Variety” is a good word to apply not just to a show but to the human race. The idea and celebration of differences has been central to the work of Ping Chong, a New York-based theater director, choreographer and video and installation artist. He and his company will be at the FlynnSpace on Sunday night with a show called “Inside/Out: Voices From the Disability Community.”
Also described as an irreverent take on disability, the performance was written by Chong and Sara Michelle Zatz from the narratives told by a group of individuals with disabilities. The script is performed by those individuals themselves. “Inside/Out” was commissioned by VSA Arts as part of Ping Chong & Company’s Undesirable Elements series. Conceived in 1992 and performed in more than 25 communities across the country since, Elements is an ongoing project that explores the “effect of history, culture and ethnicity on the lives of individuals living in a particular community,” explains Chong’s website.
Born in Toronto in 1946 and raised in New York City’s Chinatown, Chong is internationally renowned, with more than 50 stage productions to his credit, as well as numerous works for other media. In Burlington, the spoken-word “Inside/Out” is likely to inspire a local community of individuals with disabilities to share their stories — and inspire its audience to honor variety.