Prof Turns Struggles, 'Sickness' Into Drama

January 07, 2011 - News Release

University of Guelph drama professor and renowned playwright Judith Thompson - long known for her complex and sometimes disturbing plays - tackles the subject of disabilities and "sickness" in her latest project, which opened this week in Toronto.

The Grace Project: Sick! is a documentary-style theatre production that involves 14 people between 14 and 33 who have been labelled as “disabled” or “sick” telling their personal stories on stage. The performers include 14-year-old diabetic twins, a 16-year-old girl with Crohn's disease, an 18-year-old with Down syndrome and a 30-year-old actor with an aggressive form of cancer.

Thompson, whose plays often give voice to human failings and accomplishments, sets out to explore the many concepts relating to disability, illness and challenge, and what it means to be considered “sick” by the rest of the world. Not to mention wrestling with feelings of mortality at a time in life when many people feel immortal.

Thompson said she was inspired to do the project by a young person she knows who is coping with a chronic illness. She organized workshops where her cast, about half of them with professional performing experience, talked about their lives. She then shaped their thoughts and experiences into theatrical moments that they perform in word, song and dance.

For example, a performer stigmatized in his small Saskatchewan hometown for being gay shares the stage with an actor with Down syndrome and a young dancer with cancer. Thompson said the common thread among them is that they’re just fine until the outside world tells them there’s something wrong with them.

Thomspon is also directing the production, which runs through Jan. 16 at the Factory Theatre, 125 Bathurst St., as part of the Toronto Fringe NextStage Festival. A listing of show times is available online.

A faculty member in U of G’s School of English and Theatre Studies since 1992, Thompson won the 2009 Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award for her political play Palace of the End. In 2008, she was a finalist for the Governor General's Literary Awards and was the first Canadian to win the international Susan Smith Blackburn Prize.

She has also been nominated for a Genie Award twice, was a finalist for the inaugural Premier’s Award for Excellence in the Arts and won the Floyd S. Chalmers Canadian Play Award. She was named an officer of the Order of Canada in 2005, considered the country’s highest honour for lifetime achievement, for her outstanding contributions in arts and writing.

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