Playwrights lead Luna Stage class for writers with disabilities

Photo Courtesy of Christopher Drukker
The creators of the new show ‘Tranquil’ at Luna Stage are running a workshop for budding playwrights with disabilities. Above are Brendan McGrady and Brittany Anikka Liu, two of the actors in the show opening later this month.

WEST ORANGE, NJ — The playwright and dramaturge behind Luna Stage’s latest world premiere play “Tranquil” are connecting with the West Orange community beyond simply sharing their work by offering workshops to physically and developmentally disabled aspiring writers.

Andrew Rosendorf and Carlyn Aquiline have been teaching five students since late March, guiding them as they write pieces, share their work and learn about basic concepts of playwriting. Their efforts will culminate with their plays being performed by professional actors during a special presentation at Luna Stage on April 24.

That should be a special moment for the budding playwrights, but what Rosendorf especially hopes his pupils take away from the workshop experience is the knowledge that they are all natural storytellers who now have the ability to put their ideas on the page. The goal of the program, he said, is to provide them with a new outlet of self-expression.

“We’re focused on having them express themselves with all they have to offer and all they want to say,” Rosendorf told the West Orange Chronicle in an April 1 phone interview, adding that the participants’ disabilities are not much of a factor in the workshop’s mission. “If as part of that, they want to talk about or write about their disabilities, we certainly encourage that. But it’s really more about having the opportunity to put out into the world everything they have to say and express themselves in way maybe they’d never done before.”

Rosendorf and Aquiline said they were inspired to do the workshops after noticing that, while disabled actors are starting to get more chances to practice their craft, there is not much out there for disabled playwrights. So they decided to create their program with the hope it could serve as a model that communities across the country could follow. They said previous participants could graduate to leading their own workshops as well.

The first workshops have been going very well so far, they said, producing a range of creative pieces. Some of the stories devised by the students include everything from fairy tales reimagined to a heartwarming play about two brothers who visit their late mother’s beloved orange tree. A public presentation ahead of the workshop’s April 24 finale even featured a humorous monologue detailing how Tom Brady of the New England Patriots factored into the disintegration of a relationship.

Above all, Aquiline said, each writer proved to have an abundance of talent.

“They have great access to their emotional life and imaginative life,” Aquiline told the Chronicle in an April 1 phone interview. “A lot of (the work) is really funny and touching. So the writing is terrific.”

Luna Stage Artistic Director Cheryl Katz lauded Rosendorf and Aquiline for conducting the workshops, calling them “wonderful” people. And Katz said it was an easy decision to host the classes at her venue, pointing out that Luna Stage is always looking for ways to help the community. In fact, it was the theater that found the five workshop participants after reaching out to local partners such as Arts Unbound and the WAE Center.

Looking ahead, Katz said she would love to host more workshops like this one, especially considering the positive impact the arts can have on people.

“The arts in general for anybody are a way to see past your own limitations, whether those are physical limitations or emotional limitations,” Katz told the Chronicle in a March 31 phone interview. “I think the arts are empowering, I think they forge understanding. I think they allow you to get as close as you can to standing in somebody else’s shoes without actually being them.

“Everybody should have some element of artistic expression in their lives,” she continued. “The world would be a better place.”

Katz is equally excited about directing Rosendorf’s “Tranquil,” a play about a paralyzed teenager and her father, whose lives are upended when the girl’s brother re-enters their lives. The director first read the play years ago and, while she did not have the opportunity to take on the work then, she said the piece’s themes of love and humor in the face of tragedy touched her soul so much that she never forgot about it. Now that the show is about to open to previews at Luna Stage on April 13, she said audiences will soon find out for themselves how different “Tranquil” is from other works.

“There’s something about the rawness of it, there’s something about the honesty of it, there’s something about the simplicity of it,” Katz said. “Often plays deal with really big events where characters change in a very big way and there are seismic things that happen, and I don’t think that’s really the way life is. Usually changes are small, but very impactful. And so I was very moved by that (aspect of the play).”

As good as the story was, Katz knew she had to find the right cast to bring its characters to life — especially Ellen, the paralyzed teen. So Luna Stage conducted the most exhaustive search it could afford, auditioning numerous actresses both able-bodied and disabled. In the end the director found who she was looking for in Brittany Anikka Liu, a “wonderful, smart” young performer who has a spinal cord injury.

Liu’s perspective as someone with a disability has likely factored into why she has been able to inhabit Ellen so adeptly, Katz said. But she said the actress actually has sensation where her character does not, and vice versa. So Liu has consulted West Orange’s Kessler Rehabilitation Center on how she should move to embody the role while also physically protecting herself.

Extensive research was also a big part of Rosendorf’s process for writing “Tranquil.” The playwright, who developed his work with Aquiline, said he read a lot and watched several documentaries on paralysis so he would be well-informed about the subject. He also talked to people with disabilities and asked them for feedback following readings.

Yet for Rosendorf, the play is not about Ellen’s disability. He said he wrote the piece to explore love on all levels as well as what it means to forgive someone. Instead of focusing on the character’s wheelchair, he said he wants people to connect emotionally with the story and leave the theater with an experience to contemplate.

Still, one cannot help but surmise that Rosendorf has some connection to the disabled community considering “Tranquil” and now the workshops. Indeed, the playwright said helping those with disabilities has been important to him ever since he helped develop theater pieces with disabled youth as an intern for a theater in Florida. But he is not solely interested in supporting the disabled population.

Rosendorf said he is passionate about including underrepresented characters in his plays, with Ellen in “Tranquil” being just one example. Right now, he said, he is working on one play about a 9-year-old transgender girl and another about a soldier who lost a leg and suffered genital mutilation in an IED explosion. And there will likely be more plays of this nature in the future, for the playwright said these are the kinds of stories he feels compelled to tell.

“For me as an artist, it’s all about what can I do and how can I effect positive change and change within our world, even if it’s just on the scale of one person?” Rosendorf said. “How do we be good people in this world?”

To learn more about “Tranquil” and purchase tickets, visit http://lunastage.org/calendar.php?id=228.

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