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A RARE look at those with Downs

Acclaimed theatrical production organized by Elmira District Community Living to mark its 50th anniversary

Judith Thompson’s RARE is an acclaimed stage production in which every member of the nine-person cast is afflicted with Down Syndrome. If your first reaction to this information is “How did they manage to pull that off?” you’re not alone. However, that’s exactly the perception that Elmira District Community Living hopes to alter for its 50th anniversary, as it welcomes the RARE Theatre Company for two performances in Kitchener.

Award-winning playwright Judith Thompson collaborated with her nine-person cast – all of whom have Down Syndrome – while writing her new play RARE. Elmira District Community Living presents the production November 2 in Kitchener.
Award-winning playwright Judith Thompson collaborated with her nine-person cast – all of whom have Down Syndrome – while writing her new play RARE. Elmira District Community Living presents the production November 2 in Kitchener.

“We were looking at a way to celebrate our 50 years, and we thought that this play would be the perfect vehicle,” said EDCL executive director Greg Bechard. “50 years ago, this play would not have happened, would not have been possible, because the perception of people with an intellectual disability was so very, very different.

“We can talk about this and that and all the things that we’ve done, but the fact that this play has happened and was written and is performed by people with Down Syndrome is evidence of not just what we’ve accomplished in Elmira over the last 50 years, but the change that’s happened in this province, period, by all the work that all community living organizations and other advocacy groups and parents and the individuals themselves.”

Written by Governor General Award-winning playwright Judith Thompson in collaboration with her cast, RARE features its nine performers describing their hopes, dreams, fears, and frustrations to the audience, all while wearing symbolic paper-mâché masks. Their thoughts range from funny to melancholy to introspective and inspirational, and during its July run at the Toronto Fringe Festival, it attracted universal critical acclaim.

For Bechard, the fact that the cast was so closely involved in the creative process is one of the play’s most moving qualities.

“Because a large part of the audience will be the same, or have a lot in common with the performers … just think about the message that sends to the people watching those performers. ‘That’s not Hugh Jackman, it’s somebody just like me.’”

He continued, “The play is a mixture of theatre, but there’s also an element of the individuals’ lives, and they speak to their own personal experiences in life, which is a very powerful message. The message still needs to be sent.”

The play touched a nerve during its two Toronto runs, and early ticket sales suggest a similarly intense response from elsewhere in the province.

“People are coming from the Muskokas, from Port Colborne, the Niagara area, Hamilton, Kitchener,” said Bechard. “And they’re not just family but people supporting, staff of associations for community living, and other service providers. So there’s great excitement about this play, many people have heard about it, but very few people have had an opportunity to see it.

“We wanted to demonstrate the change, very graphically, very visibly,” he continued. “We felt that this is the perfect way to celebrate what we’ve been about for 50 years, and what better way to engage people in our 50th celebration than to give something back to the community?”

Bechard added that while he hopes the play educates, it won’t be the theatrical equivalent of eating your vegetables.

“I mean, Judith just had a play at Stratford this season. This isn’t just a local association doing a church basement kind of production of its own; this is a provincial or national-quality performance. It’s a real play, if you know what I mean. It’s the real deal.”

RARE will be performed with its original Toronto cast at the Conrad Centre for the Performing Arts (36 King St. W.) on November 2. Tickets for the 2 p.m. matinee (already nearly sold out) are $20, and the 7 p.m. evening show is $30. For tickets, call 519-669-3205, ext. 221 or 229.

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