Part oral history and part theatrical performance, Invisible Voices was created to help heal the breach between disabled people — whatever their disability — and people who tend to see them as stereotypes.
Part of Ping Chong’s groundbreaking series “Undesirable Elements,” the play tells the story of six Colorado residents through their own words. Four of the performers are from Colorado Springs; two are from other parts of the state.
“There are 54 million people with disabilities in America. People with disabilities — that’s the only minority group that any one of us can join, at any time,” said Randy Dipner, founder of Meeting the Challenge, one of 10 Americans with Disability Act centers around the nation.
But they also are marginalized, despite the fact that legislation has been in place to protect them from discrimination for nearly 20 years, he said.
Dipner, a board member of Theatreworks at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, had been looking for ways to tell stories about people with disabilities — a way to show audiences that they are people first. He discovered the works of Ping Chong, director of the Undesirable Elements series of performances. A year later, Invisible Voices is starting rehearsals.
Chong started the series during 1992, allowing immigrants and foreign workers to tell stories about life in America. A first generation American, he said he understands the feeling of “otherness” that immigrants often have. From there he started performances about people outside mainstream American life.
“And now we’re telling this story,” said Chong, who is an internationally recognized theater director and artist. “My work has always been experimental, always been outside normal theater. But this is more than theater — I view this as a social justice project, as social activism.”
For the performers, the play gives them a chance — many for the first time — to tell their stories, both triumphant and painful. Picked from more than 100 people statewide, they will be sharing some of the most intimate details of their lives.
“I think it’s safe to say that all of us have traumatic experiences in our lives,” said Kelly Tobin, one of the performers in the play, which starts Oct. 1 and runs through Oct. 17. “Even those of us who are fully mainstreamed, so to speak. But when we met and read the script, it was interesting for me. I read all these intimate details — and now I want to get to know these people.”
Tobin has skeletal dysplasia, a group of congenital abnormalities of the bone and cartilage.
Other performers talked about how similar the journey has been for each of them — despite differences in disabilities.
“There are a whole variety of challenges, issues,” said Kevin Pettit, who received a tramatic brain injury after a car accident. Pettit has a PhD and was previously a professor of physics. “But we bonded because of those, because of the disability.”
Rebecca Shields, who is blind, said she appreciates the chance to tell her own story.
“I’m the first to tell you, it’s not what you see, it’s how you see it,” she said. “My greatest wish is to educate, to help people understand things they don’t know. And to maybe change how they treat the next person with disabilities — because it really can happen to anyone.”
But the stories aren’t all sad, aren’t all about discrimination, said Sandy Lahmann, a Colorado Springs resident who has multiple sclerosis.
“It’s wonderful to realize that,” she said. “That this is not just about trauma. Life is fun, if you have the right approach. It’s an important message to share — but it’s also really good theater. It’s a dynamic, living script and Ping has created a wonderful thing. Not only is this important, but they really are excellent stories.”
And that’s part of Chong’s approach to his work.
“So much issue-based theater gives you the medicine without the sugar,” he said. “I realize that this is not just about the pain, it’s also about the triumphs, it’s about being uplifted. You won’t be depressed after the show.”
Chong said he created Invisible Voices — and all the other plays from the Undesirable Elements series — to try to create empathy.
“Why are some people more empathetic?” he asked. “That’s the question that matters most, what creates empathy, and how to create that in a man. I want to see how we can work together, move forward to be a species that is civilized. And I have to say, I don’t think we’re there yet. But I want to do what I can to get us there.”
For ticket information, visit www.theatreworkscs.org or www.invisiblevoices.org.
Amy Gillentine covers health care for the Colorado Springs Business Journal.