ABLE ensembles go to Zoom to redesign the staging of “Romeo and Juliet”

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When COVID-19 forced Chicago theater to go dark, the ABLE Ensemble was one of the first to venture into the brave new world of digital programming. In the face of the pandemic, the brave theater not only survived – their art thrived.

“You know, I honestly feel really humiliated because I think it was one of our strongest years and one of our strongest seasons. Especially when working with people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, any type of social access is so important, especially for adults, ”said Katie Yohe, ABLE Executive Director of Artists Breaking Limits & Expectations (ABLE). The Chicago non-profit ensemble, founded in 2016, which, according to its website, “creates theater and film for, with and by people with Down syndrome and other developmental disorders”.

“The pandemic’s mental health toll was very heavy on them, so we saw a lot of demand for programs and services, so we could add workshops, add ensembles, and keep pushing to do more to make sure there was a place that our community could go to. ”

Although some theater makers have resented Zoom’s limitations, ABLE rose to the challenge. “I think for people in the creative arts it was sort of the ultimate test of all of our theater-making skills,” said Yohe. “It’s all of the improvisational skills you’ve acquired and your willingness to be adaptable, to say yes and keep trying, to work with your team and your community.”

And with that embrace of change came unexpected rewards for the actors. “I think having a little more control over their surroundings, controlling the volume of the class, the lighting in their room, and being in a comfortable, familiar space has helped some of our actors become a lot stronger in my opinion, if you work virtually. “than you could have done it personally.”

Their talents are showcased in Romeo and Juliet Remix, a new take on the Shakespeare classic that combines the original work with original monologues and cast songs.

“The team working on ‘Romeo and Juliet Remix’ is zooming in from about 10 different states… we have a lot of actors with Down syndrome, we also have actors who are autistic, we have some participants with cerebral palsy and then some with a general development delay, ”said Yohe. “In our ensembles, or at least the people who work on ‘Romeo and Juliet Remix’, there are currently 38 actors between the ages of 15 and 37.”

ABLE Ensemble allows actors a high degree of freedom of action in their roles. Yohe delves into the creative process of classic adaptation, supported in collaboration with her long-time partner, the Chicago Shakespeare Theater.

“It’s a way of giving our ensemble ownership of some classic pieces that they might not have been able to do in traditional situations. It is certainly rare to see even an actor with a disability on a Shakespeare show, let alone the entire cast, ”she said.

The Friday ensemble “drinks a laughing potion” with the game “What’s in the pharmacy?” Through this and other games, ensembles learned the plot of “Romeo & Juliet”.
Courtesy ABLE

“We currently have four separate ensembles and each has up to 10 actors with different disabilities and ages. We spent the first three or four weeks or so really digging into the story and the characters. … Obviously, many people have already got to know this story, it is so part of the zeitgeist, even though it is 400 years old. … We asked every actor what they would like to do most, whether there is a character or a moment in the story that they really feel connected to, whether they want to show a special skill. Did you want to sing? Did you want to dance? Did they really want to do good meaty acting or comedic work? And then when you want to concentrate on Shakespeare texts or invent something new. “

The end result is “Romeo and Juliet” like you’ve never seen it before, with 11 different Juliets and nine different Romeos divided into 22 different scenes. With support from educational artists and volunteers, a total of 70 people can be seen on screen and everything is filmed in the actors’ homes and edited for an epic story.

Speaking of film, ABLE Ensemble also offers referrals for those looking for disabled film and theater actors, as well as continuing education courses for those who want to learn how to work creatively and respectfully with the disabled community.

“I mean, if you look at the We See You White American Theater movement and all the changes we’re trying to talk about, [they] these producers will end up costing more money, and they just have to get on their feet. They know that you can’t just pay lip service to the cause; You actually have to accept that this will be part of your budget. It has to be an obligation. It has to be a financial obligation and not just an emotional one. ”

Sheri Flanders is a Chicago-based freelance writer.

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