Philadelphia theater company ‘opens people’s eyes’

Acting Without Boundaries is a Philadelphia theater company that employs actors with disabilities.

Lauren Gretz acts out a factory job during a performance of “Working, A Musical,” presented by Acting Without Boundaries at the Arden Theatre on Feb. 12. | GENEVA HEFFERNAN / THE TEMPLE NEWS

Will Thomas said acting saved his life.

Thomas, 22, has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair. In 2012, he got sick and had to drop out of high school.

The following year, Thomas — a self-described thespian — got involved with Acting Without Boundaries, a nonprofit theater company based in the Philadelphia area that makes theater more inclusive of people with physical disabilities.

“I was in a very dark place,” Thomas said. “I had issues with depression and anxiety. [Acting Without Boundaries] gives me a reason to get up every morning.”

Neill Hartley, a 1990 master’s of acting alumnus, is the artistic director of Acting Without Boundaries, which was founded in 2004.

Last month, the organization partnered with Temple Theaters on “Waiting for Rain,” a play about a woman named Jenna who has a physical disability. It was directed by Amy Blumberg, a third-year master’s of directing student and written by Mark Costello, a third-year master’s of playwriting student.

The show, in an unconventional move for Temple, hired an actor outside the university to more accurately represent someone with a physical disability. The director and writer hired Hannah Brannau, an actress from Acting Without Boundaries who has cerebral palsy.

Brannau said she was proud to be chosen to play the role of Jenna in “Waiting for Rain.”

Neill Hartley (left), the artistic director of Acting Without Boundaries, and Christine Rouse, its founder and director, laugh during their company’s performance of “Working, A Musical” at the Arden Theater on Feb. 12. | GENEVA HEFFERNAN / THE TEMPLE NEWS

“I think playing that role made me a better performer and definitely made me look at disability in theater a completely different way,” she added. “Disabled actors are hungry for work and interesting characters and opportunities. I am hoping a show like that opens people’s eyes to see what kinds of characters are possible.”

Hartley first started working with actors with physical disabilities years ago for a theater company in Maine. He was only there for a few months, but said it was an amazing experience.

When he came back to Philadelphia, he found out that Christine Rouse, an actress who has cerebral palsy, was starting Acting Without Boundaries. He was asked to come on as a volunteer, and after a few months, he became the artistic director.

“As many things in my life, it’s not at all what I expected to do,” Hartley said. “I love it. It’s some of the most rewarding work I’ve ever done.”

Hartley said most of the actors have cerebral palsy, which affects the way they move, and a number of the performers use wheelchairs or walkers. The company also has a few members who are blind, or use machines to speak.

Each year, Acting Without Boundaries does a few large-scale shows. This year, it is working on its own rendition of the musical “Mary Poppins,” which will be performed in The Haverford School’s 700-seat theater in Haverford, Pennsylvania.

Last month, the company performed “Working, A Musical” at the Arden Theatre in Old City as a part of Philly Theatre Week.

“It also has turned out to be a very amazing place, a big community for people to come together,” Hartley said. “Theater is the venue that provides that amazing connection for people.”

Simon Bonenfant portrays an over-confident businessman in Acting Without Boundaries’ performance of “Working, A Musical” at the Arden Theatre on Feb. 12. | GENEVA HEFFERNAN / THE TEMPLE NEWS

The company meets on a monthly basis for theater workshops that include yoga and dance to prepare for performances. There are more rigorous workshops that culminate in a large-scale performance in July for local children at summer camp. The performance is then put on again in October for the general public.

Help from volunteers is an important part of the performances, Hartley said. Because of some performers’ physical disabilities, shows are often adapted. Volunteers also come on stage to “act as the movers of people” or read the scripts if the actor is not able to do so themselves, Hartley said.

“In our company, what’s interesting is that because everyone has a disability, disabilities aren’t talked about at all,” Hartley said. “We sing, we dance, we move, we do whatever. It’s pretty wonderful because it really levels the playing field, and there are pretty terrific performers.”

Hartley added that one of his goals for the theater industry is to change people’s perceptions about actors with disabilities.

“People will meet [the actors] and say, ‘Wow, these are pretty amazing people, and really talented,” Hartley said. “They just happen to have some differences.”

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