In a quiet section of the Ostrovsky Museum in central Moscow, a group of 12 unique actors are busy rehearsing for an upcoming production. In a week’s time, like any other group of professional actors, they will step onto the stage to perform in front of a live audience. But while most of the cast are already on stage, one member of the troupe is lying on a sofa, holding his hands up to form a pistol and pretending to shoot his fellow cast members.
“Philippe, you are only shooting yourself by doing that,” barks choreographer Margarita Rebetskaya. Philippe immediately stands up and takes his place, completely undaunted and ready to begin.
The scene opens and Philippe performs his precise, choreographed gestures faultlessly, his head held in perfect poise as he smiles and performs a waltz with his dance partner.
“Perfect, Philippe! You see, you can do anything when you put your mind to it,” says the choreographer, encouraging him.
Avoiding the familiar trap
For 18 months, this troupe of 12 actors, all living with Down syndrome, have been rehearsing their version of the fairy-tale classic “Cinderella,” fully choreographed by professional Russian dancer Rebetskaya.
“It’s my first experience working with actors with disabilities,” she says, adding that she’s determined that this will not be a run-of-the-mill performance.
Rebetskaya planned the production with one aim in mind: to avoid the familiar trap of either making the audience sympathize with or stare at those with disabilities.
“I want to create a positive theatrical experience; a show of quality and audacity,” she says. “In my opinion, it’s the best means of breaking down prejudice and reducing the distance between them and us.”
With this in mind, the choreographer recruited a team of around 20 different theater professionals, in the hope of creating a modern and polished performance. Rebetskaya then organized a casting session, putting out a call for actors and artists with Down syndrome.
For Rebetskaya, the selection process was “completely necessary to line up with our ambitions of creating a professional project.”
She also took the time to look for and select the perfect Cinderella: “I finally discovered Masha at a theater festival,” she recalls.
After only 18 months, the troupe’s progress has been astounding. “The actors are fully autonomous on stage, they no longer need external guidance,” Rebetskaya says proudly.
The production uses silent expressions and mime alongside elaborate dances in the place of spoken dialogue, accompanied by sophisticated animation techniques and a carefully selected soundtrack.
When it comes to teaching the choreography, the secret is to view the troupe for what they really are: a selection of adults who are also talented, professional actors: “They do very well when left to work by themselves,” adds Rebetskaya.
Indeed, she’s convinced that those with Down syndrome actually make some of the most authentic actors she’s ever seen. “They never pretend: People with Down syndrome are incapable of hiding their feelings or lying,” she says.
The Open Art Theatre’s director, Oksana Tereshchenko, founded the company in 2001. In addition to providing acting classes, people of all ages living with Down syndrome can familiarize themselves with different art forms, such as playing an instrument or learning how to draw and paint.
Having survived for a couple of years on their own limited funds, the Open Art Theatre then turned toward international charitable organizations in search of financial aid. Thanks to the British organization Action for Russian Children, the British Women’s Club of Moscow and various private donors, the theater has been able to continue its work.
For more than a year, though, Tereshchenko has faced numerous financial difficulties “caused by the economic crisis and the legislative changes regarding foreign NGOs working in Russia,” she says.
Yet initiatives like the Open Art Theatre provide more than just a place for those with Down syndrome to learn and grow: they help to alter the Russian people’s perspective on disability.
“Little by little, opinions and outlooks are changing,” says Tereshchenko. “But the road is going to be long, and projects like ours are indispensable in bringing about change.”
In the future, the theater wants to go on tour across Russia, performing for both children and adults, before continuing this process with even more groups of people with Down syndrome.
“We want people to see professional actors before they even notice the disability,” says Tereshchenko, believing that only this will help to truly integrate those with disabilities into the fickle fabric of society.
This article first appeared in the French-language, Russian bimonthly Le Courrier de Russie.
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