Berkeley group Wry Crips tells stories of under-represented women
By Lou Fancher
A contingency of women, all people with disabilities escaping a neo-eugenic society bent on exterminating them, depart resource-depleted Earth with a brilliant bio-scientist. In their possession is a gene-altered grain capable of producing unlimited life-sustaining crops.
While they are thriving in their utopian farm community on a new planet, desperate men from Earth appear, begging for assistance. What will the women decide?
This is the synopsis of “Iretonia, a Sci-Fi Fantasy,” an original play exploring dependency and need presented June 16 and 18 by Wry Crips Disabled Women’s Theater.
The performances at the Redwood Gardens Community Room mark the first public appearance since 2011 of the ensemble theater group founded 30 years ago in Berkeley by Patty Overland, Judith Smith, and Laura Rifkin. They created Wry Crips to give voice to under-represented women with disabilities.
The inaugural show in 1986 in San Francisco was followed by on-and-off activities, including a resurgence of writing projects in 2001 and mostly spoken word and individual monologue presentations thereafter.
Galvanized in part by Overland’s energy and the cross-country arrival from the East Coast of feminist playwright, director, and dramaturg Michaela Goldhaber, the upcoming performances mark a turning point.
“What’s unique about this is the way we’ve made it a collaborative play,” says Goldhaber. “It’s Patty’s vision to bring people in and have every person develop their character. Everyone has written some part of the script. We shared a Google Doc that Patty and I maintained and crafted as the story developed. Stylistically, it’s a collage of spoken word poetry.”
Goldhaber relocated to Berkeley after suffering a stroke in 2008 at age 36. The stroke paralyzed the left side of her body, destroyed the vision in her right eye and caused her to leave behind Flying Fig Theatre, a promising company with a rising reputation that Goldhaber cofounded with Heather Ondersma.
After lengthy rehabilitation, she regained the ability to walk, type with one hand, drive a car and, most notably, return to theater.
In the Bay Area, she has worked with Boxcar Theatre, Butterfield 8, Central Works, Aurora Theatre Company, Berkeley Rep and others. A graduate of Tufts University and the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, Goldhaber has a master’s degree in directing from UCLA.
This is the first time Goldhaber has participated in a Wry Crips production and she anticipates a lively post-show discussion.
The 35-minute play will be followed by short solo works by each of the five actors involved. “The actors include a woman who is blind, two who use power wheelchairs, one who uses a scooter, a woman who lost a leg to childhood illness and uses crutches, and me, a stroke surviver,” she says.
Their stories extend beyond their physical bodies and the realm of theater to operate like a mirror that reflects historical and contemporary society’s attitudes, fears, misunderstandings and awareness about human disability.
Goldhaber says attitudes within the theater community evolve, but progress is slow. “There are people who are interested in trying to find ways to include people with disabilities,” she says. “Since I’ve become a casting director, I’ve found groups don’t know how to reach out to actors with disabilities. And those actors don’t know the routes to theater. That’s why Wry Crips is so important.”
Goldhaber tells people about the group everywhere she can — at doctor’s offices, performances, playwriting workshops. “I ask people if they’re interested in participating. Just posting a casting notice in theater listings won’t reach people with disabilities.”
Nationally, the New York-based Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts maintains a database of artists of color and performers with disabilities in theater, film, television, and related media. But Goldhaber says a recent survey shows few Bay Area artists are listed.
She mentions the limited number of theater groups whose model includes actors with and without disabilities: New York-based Apothetae and Phamaly Theatre Company in Englewood, Colorado. Despite the discouraging lack of opportunities, Goldhaber finds hope in recent conversations she has had with leaders of Bay Area theater companies.
In the meantime, there is Wry Crips and one certainty: although progress is slow, it’s vital that people with disabilities tell their stories, ask questions, spark conversations and lead the evolving discussion.