In 2017, Tom Hanlon, executive director of River’s Way, mentioned an idea he had to Samantha Gray, executive director of Theatre Bristol. He wanted to collaborate and bring people with differing abilities onto the stage.
“We thought it sounded great and with some conversation realized we could just start it without grant support. Theatre Bristol has the ARTspace Theatre and operations, as well as props, costumes, volunteers and promotions to put on a show. Now here we are four years going because it was something we wanted to do. We have even been able to coax Tom Hanlon on stage, and he’s been bitten by the acting bug. Dottie Havlik graciously volunteers her time writing and directing the plays. Her husband Robert builds the set, and volunteers help with everything from costumes to props and sound and lighting.” Gray says.
Dottie Havlik volunteered to help when Gray brought the idea to the Theatre Bristol board.
“I said, ‘I’d love to do that.’”
That was the easiest stage in the entire process.
“We started looking for scripts and realized very few people are doing things like this. In one place, they (differently-abled people) were shadowing the theater actors, but they weren’t actually playing parts themselves. So, we couldn’t find any place where they were taking an active role. We asked some publishers to allow us to modify scripts for differently-abled people and they said ‘no.’ The plays are copyrighted, and they don’t want you to change anything. So, I said ‘I’m a former journalist and used to write radio plays for ‘Don’t Touch That Dial’ on WETS back in the day.’ So I decided I can write something, and I did,” Havlik says. This year’s play is called “Real Heroes.”
The next step was convincing Rivers Way participants to join the cast.
“When I first came, we sat down and told them we’re doing a play and asked who wants to be in the play. A bunch of them weren’t so sure they wanted to stand up in front of other people and be vulnerable like that.
“I talked to them and said it will be a good thing. No one is going to criticize you. This is going to be a respectful, good experience. The audience will view you with love because they’re your family and friends. Some joined then, and others joined after they saw how fun the rehearsals were,” Havlik says.
While the rehearsals are fun, they are also hard work.
“Dottie expects us to do the right thing. So, you’re working on a project and going to perform it in front of a public audience. They know they have to work hard and get it right, so when they’re out there on stage with an audience it’s right. They are really proud of what they do and that they are contributing to the community in a positive way. They love working with the Theatre Bristol actors. I’m the narrator and Matt, our other full-time staff member, plays a key role in the play,” Hanlon says.
Havlik directs the play, working with the Rivers Way cast for two months and then combines the casts for eight days of rehearsal at Theatre Bristol.
Just like any original play, when she starts rehearsals she rewrites and changes stage directions she’d thought would work.
“When we get in rehearsals, sometimes I realize what I wanted them to say was too complicated or someone I thought could do the play, can’t, so I rewrite. We figure these things out as we go along. That’s the way you’d do a prewritten show. You always think as a director you know what it’s going to look like; and you get it on stage, and it doesn’t look right, so you change it.,” Havlik says.
The play also ends up being a collaboration not just between River’s Way and Theatre Bristol, but also between Havlik and the cast.
“I want the performers to contribute. They’re creative people. I’ve learned to respect that and use their ideas. Because just like any creative person, they have good ideas. I think that’s why they enjoy it. I brought that with me. I’m here to respect them. It’s the same creative process you have with all people in the theater. You start small, and the theater will suck you in eventually,” Havlik says.
One example is a young man named Adam who didn’t want to be a hero. When asked why, he said “Because I’ve got a hot date.” Havlik thought that was humorous and creative so she built part of her play around that. In the end, at the school dance, Adam gets his hot date.
Havlik’s plays for this collaboration are always humorous.
Hanlon remembers two examples. The participant who played King Hamlet has a death scene. The actor drinks poison and carefully puts the cup down on the table. Then he gets stabbed and carefully takes his crown off and puts it on the table. Then instead of falling out of the chair or simply slumping over – he dives across the stage. That scene caused the audience to roar with laughter, according to Hanlon
His other example has become a recurring character in all their plays – Granny. “We have this one young woman who is very shy, but she makes the best facial expressions. She sits to the side and does expressive faces. It’s very funny. There will be something in the script that mentions Granny, and she makes this expressive look or gives a wink to the audience. Everyone starts laughing. It’s great. No one knows whose granny she is. She just comes with the play,” Hanlon says.
After each show, the audience is invited to the Theatre Bristol board room to mingle with the actors. Havlik says this really bolsters the River’s Way actors’ confidence. “The first year, I had a Frontier Health worker who had worked with one of our people. She told me it changed his whole life to be in the show. Another said she’d worked in a high school for 20 years with special needs kids and had never seen anything like this attempted and she was crying. So it touches lives. It is fun. We have a great time, but it’s also for some of these kids a life changing experience.”
“Theater is so great because it brings people together. You have this imaginary world that everybody shares, this common picture of what’s happening on stage, and it’s a really neat way of connecting everybody. We advertise teamwork in what we do, and theater is a perfect example of teamwork.
“I want people to think of people with differing abilities as contributing members of the community. I don’t want them to think of them as people who need to be helped. I don’t want anybody to come to the play because they want to help the actors from River’s Way. I want them to come because they enjoy theater, and they want to recognize the talents that these people have. That’s what River’s Way is all about, getting folks out into the community and having them contribute. People with differing abilities are just like everybody else, when you bring them together and inspire them, they can do great things,” Hanlon says.
“This partnership is born out of a love to make theater possible for everyone, to truly embody the missions of both Theatre Bristol and River’s Way. It really shows what Bristol is about, putting partnership, encouragement, compassion, and love in the spotlight,” Gray concurs.
Performance dates are Saturday, March 14, at 10 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. and Sunday, March 15, at 2:30 p.m.