Institute’s play gives voice to disabled

“A Fierce Kind of Love” attempts to tell stories from an intellectually disabled community.

Lisa Sonneborn, an alumna of the master of fine arts program in film media arts, has spent more than 15 years finding ways to tell the stories of the intellectually disabled community.

Recently, with the help of a playwright, director and five actors – some of whom are intellectually disabled themselves – she has undertaken writing a play based on interviews with the disabled and their loved ones.

Temple’s Institute on Disabilities wants to change the way people view those with disabilities, as well as inform those of the history of the intellectual disabilities movement. The institute is attempting to do this through several ways: through its website, through its program, Visionary Voices, and through its in-progress play, “A Fierce Kind of Love.”

Sonneborn, the project coordinator for the Visionary Voices program at the Institute on Disabilities described the play as “oral history meets memoir meets folk music.”

“The focus primarily is to bring the history of the intellectual disability movement to new audiences,” Sonneborn said. “This is really a hidden history for many people. It really is the Civil Rights Movement that people have never heard about so we think it’s also important to engage communities who otherwise don’t know about our issues.”

Another reason the Institute wanted to create the play was because it wanted to better engage people with the movement.

“When you view our oral history online, [it can be] a very solitary experience,” Sonneborn said. “You watch the video in front of your computer and that’s great, that’s wonderful [and] we encourage people to do that but it doesn’t allow for an exchange or dialogue. Public performance gives us the opportunity to do that.”

[blockquote who=”Lisa Sonneborn” what=”project coordinator”]“It really is the Civil Rights Movement that people have never heard about.[/blockquote]

Sonneborn herself developed “A Fierce Kind of Love,” with the help of playwright Suli Holum and director David Bradley. A colleague of Sonneborn’s also played an important part in the creation of the play.

“The idea [for the play] was mine, but it was really inspired by a project here called Visionary Voices, which I produce,” Sonneborn said. “Of course that project came from our co-executive director, Celia Feinstein. Celia became concerned a couple years ago that these histories, these untold stories were being lost because people who made the history that we’re talking about are getting older and they are in danger of losing their stories.”

Sonneborn noted that it was Pennsylvania’s unique history with the intellectual disability movement as what prompted Feinstein to pursue Visionary Voices.

“We were the first state in the country to allow children with intellectual disabilities to go to school. We were one of the first to close institutions and move people with disabilities into the community, and to what we believe [is] their rightful place in the community,” Sonneborn said.

Thus, from Visionary Voices, came about the idea for a play. The first reading of “A Fierce Kind of Love” took place on March 18, and aside from minor technical difficulties, it went off without a hitch and opened to a sold-out crowd, Sonneborn said.

The first reading also had an interactive broadcast with the University of Pittsburgh as well as a live online stream, which managed to reach viewers from Melbourne, Australia.

“We did do evaluations [after the reading] and the response was, I would say, incredibly positive,” Sonneborn added

Michael McClendon, one of the actors in “A Fierce Kind of Love,” said he particularly enjoyed his experience at the reading.

“My experience with the play was a lot of fun, and I had a whole lot of energy to put into it, you know, to make me better for who I am and what I can do out there once I act,” McClendon said.

The play contains three different components: oral interviews that Sonneborn has conducted, the archival preservation of documents that are significant to the movement and public performance.

“What Suli, my playwright, is doing, is essentially taking the transcripts of my oral history interviews with people and using them verbatim, [but] obviously structuring them differently, but using as the basis for this play,” Sonneborn said. “Our actors are speaking people’s real words, which is a really interesting process.”

The institute’s goal is to branch out from the readings, and turn “A Fierce Kind of Love,” into a full-on play equipped with singing.

“We want it to be a theatrical event by 2014. That’s our goal,” Sonneborn said.

She added that, overall, she has been pleased with the reading and the play’s development and noted that it has affected the actors and others involved on a much deeper level.

“I feel like everyone who has been a part of the development of this piece has felt changed by the piece, both as individuals and as artists,” she said. “And it’s been very exciting for all of us.”

Kate Trowbridge can be reached at

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