Exit, Pursued By a Bear

by dpreyde

For the last two years I’ve been attending a monthly play reading event called Sing for Your Supper. It’s held in a tiny local theatre called The Storefront.

Basically what happens at Sing for Your Supper is that anyone can submit a play, the best five or six plays are chosen, and anyone who wants to perform shows up an hour before Sing for Your Supper begins. They’re assigned to act out a play they’ve never seen before, and given an hour to pull together a performance.

The atmosphere at Sing for Your Supper is electric. The audience is enthusiastic, warm and encouraging. Everyone who participates feels loved. Being an actor and being a writer are often incredibly miserable existences full of isolation and self-doubt. Sing for Your Supper is a safe harbour, a reprieve from all the nastiness we experience.

Anyway, there’s been a kerfuffle with the landlord and The Storefront Theatre is closing at the end of the month. Sing for Your Supper will continue to exist, shuffled from venue to venue until the Storefront finds a new, permanent home.

Everyone involved with the Storefront is devastated. Hell, the wider theatrical community in Toronto is devastated, because these guys stick together. They pride themselves on unity and comradery and unconditional support. The prevailing attitude at the moment seems to be unflagging optimism: sure, we’ll find a way out of this! So long as we have each other, we can do anything!

But it isn’t that easy, and I’m feeling apprehensive. Let me tell you a story.

Several years ago, Hannah decided to sign up for an improv class. She’s a pretty shy person, and figured that improv might help her become more outgoing and take more chances. She signed up for a class at Bad Dog Theatre, a local indie theatre with a similar attitude to the Storefront: anyone can perform, and everyone’s welcome.

Hannah had a great time. Her class’ instructor was warm, encouraging and funny, and everyone felt safe and supported. Hannah started feeling more comfortable making an ass of herself in public, which is what you really need to do if you want to overcome shyness.

The class wrapped up, the instructor encouraged the students to sign up for more classes in the future, and Hannah was excited to do just that.

Then Bad Dog Theatre changed locations, moving from a ground-level location in Greektown to a second-story location in the west end.

Their new space was wheelchair inaccessible.

They were apologetic, but offered no solutions. Hannah tried finding new improv classes somewhere else, but couldn’t find anything offered in an accessible space.

I remember when she first told me this story. I was incredulous.

“Surely there must’ve been something out there,” I said.

“The only accessible stand-up comedy venue in Toronto is Second City,” she said.

And indie theatres, apparently, were just as bad. Most were in tiny spaces, often up or down a flight of stairs.

Of course there are reasons for this, money being the most obvious. It’s hard to find an affordable, accessible space. But when it comes to creating a community space- physical or otherwise- a series of decisions are made. Priorities are established.

Theatre prides itself on the ideas of community, belonging and togetherness. If certain bodies are prioritized over other bodies, and if money is prioritized over human beings, then the resulting community is an empty shell. It’s just a lie that’s told to make ourselves feel better for having done a shitty thing.

This is why The Storefront Theatre was important (and using the past tense here is painful for me). It was one of the only indie theatres that was truly a community space. It was- with the exception of the bathroom- fully accessible. The lobby, audience area, stage and backstage were all wheelchair accessible. Hannah was always made to feel welcome. Questions about accessibility were answered promptly and respectfully. The building’s floor plan was available online.

And they weren’t only welcoming toward users of mobility devices. I recently submitted a play to the Storefront, and part of the application was a checklist of different marginalized identities. They were actively seeking out plays by people of colour, women, the queer community, and Deaf and blind people. For whatever reason, users of mobility devices, cognitively disabled people, and mentally ill people did not make the checklist. But based on how Hannah and I have been treated at Sing for Your Supper, I’m willing to interpret that as an honest oversight.

When The Storefront Theatre relocates, what will it look like? Will it still be accessible? I’m not privy to whatever decisions are being made behind the scenes, so I have no idea what priorities are being made. Will disabled bodies be included in the Storefront’s future?

I’m cautiously optimistic. I believe- based on my previous experiences- that the people in charge are decent and principled. But I have some concerns, too. Bad Dog Theatre has graciously stepped forward and offered their assistance. They might end up hosting Sing for Your Supper for a month or two (or more). In that case, users of mobility devices will temporarily be segregated from that event.

In the end, a community is just a collection of people, and every individual has to make their own decision about what matters to them. Sing for Your Supper is incredibly important to me. It’s one of the first times I’ve ever felt included in a community. I believe that these are my people. And, putting aside emotional concerns, I’m a writer and Sing for Your Supper has staged my plays on twelve different occasions.

But I cannot participate in an event that is wheelchair inaccessible, and I can’t be part of a community which believes accessibility is optional. I believe that the people in charge of the Storefront’s future will do the right thing in the coming months. I hope they will, because this is one of the only safe places I’ve found, and I don’t want to lose it.