Judith Thompson's Rarity
An event perhaps?
by Jason Booker
Curated by Canadian theatre legend, Judith Thompson, Rare assembles nine performers for an unusual show. Instead of actors playing parts, these performers share their lives with the audience. Not in the way a one-person-show might co-opt the writer/performer’s life to tell a story though, for Rare is a show crafted by the performers and their director, Thompson, to share their experience living with Down’s Syndrome.
The performers tell of their loves, be that favourite foods, feelings, family or friends. Michael sings for the audience; Nada teaches phrases from her other languages; James percusses and plays the part of a tiger. In one of the more tender moments, Dylan shares a song he wrote about acceptance; he recites the words, then assistant director and onstage musician Victoria Carr plays the song on her guitar as Suzanne dances. The cast also tell of their frustrations and of their losses, which include a father to cancer and a brother to drugs. Krystal pleads with women to not abort their pregnancies due to a Down's diagnosis, before Andreas expresses his thoughts at being called retarded (hint: he’s not happy).
These are people who reveal their lives and their many facets, as proven when Nicholas discusses being gay and Sarah references supporting her best friend, her sister, through her seizures. The joy of the show comes through whenever the cast gets to dance, as in the dance party to James Brown’s I Got You, which is a definite highlight; everyone gets a solo to be themselves, dancing to their own rhythm with their own moves. Though maybe that’s who the cast is the whole time…? These nine performers are not playing parts; they are simply being themselves in a show they wrote for themselves. It’s not quite theatre but what else to call it? An event, perhaps.
It is challenging for anyone to step onstage and perform their own life, but even harder when it is something the person has not really done it before.
The most challenging thing about this inspiring and brave show is how to talk about it and why it exists – the questions surrounding the piece are far more reviewable than the actual event. Why does this show need to exist – to promote the artists involved, to boost awareness or to provide an outlet for the cast? Does society need Rare to counter the common perceptions and impulses to coddle, or dismiss people with Down’s, or to challenge their impulses to condescend or be repulsed? (Do people still react this way?) Is it fair to exploit the lives of the cast in order to have a hit show or is there a greater purpose behind it? In writing this review, egg-shells have been walked on because of my awareness of how the phrase humanizing the performers sounds, which creates the image that the cast of Rare is not human but an other, a different type of person or species, a freak or a disability. That then makes the act of the audience’s participation – seeing the cast perform – more important than the performers themselves and their work; therefore, in that case, the existence of the show indicates that the audience has to award human-ness to the amazing people in this talented and courageous cast. (To be clear, they do not.)
It is challenging for anyone to step onstage and perform their own life, but even harder when it is something the person has not really done before. The performance I saw featured a very nervous Suzanne, because I believe her family was present. What I witnessed, when Krystal put her hand on Suzanne’s leg to calm her, was really the point of the show.
In creating Rare, these nine performers have created a community. They love and support each other through this endeavor and it is an amazing bond to watch (that more casts and workplaces should emulate). And I think that’s the message of the show: why can’t we all behave that way together? Ignore any differences and simply treat each other with respect and dignity, acknowledging that everyone has a different capability than one another, whether that manifests in poor people skills, strong athleticism, the ability to solve math equations or not being able to sing on key. Sure, the show is manipulative, but theatre usually is. This show just happens to wear that heart on its sleeve, deserving that standing ovation the audience eagerly jumps up to give.
See a review of another show like Rare which appeared at the Montreal Fringe Festival - Some Frenzied Killing Games