Playwright Janet Schlapkohl doesn’t discriminate. In a world in which people are constantly labeled because of how they look or act, all of that seems to disappear in her play Vaudeville Dreams.
The play’s cast is composed of UI students and a group of Iowa City community members who have varying disabilities. But from the stage, spectators are not able to determine which actors have a disability.
Schlapkohl’s goal is to not label anyone as disabled in reality or in the production.
The cast will tell the story of a young boy with autism spectrum disorder at 8 p.m. Friday in the Theatre Building’s Theatre B. Performances will continue through Saturday. Admission is free.
UI graduate student Schlapkohl wanted to focus on the art of vaudeville in the piece because it consists of a variety of separate, unrelated acts thrown together. There are elements of dance, comedy, and animal shows, which help to create this type of theater.
The M.F.A. playwriting student was also a special-education teacher for more than five years, which triggered her idea to include members of the community with disabilities.
"I wanted to try to write something that had more elements of theater that were unspoken," Schlapkohl said. "I was also struck by the imaginations my [special-education] students had, and I thought it would be interesting to include those elements."
The play follows the life of Jared, whose mother suffers from terminal cancer. One day, he goes to school with a gun and gets suspended, forcing him to live with his mother’s friend Sharon, who is extremely pregnant. Eventually, Jared’s special-education teacher pays him a visit, and a special bond forms between the two.
"It’s about people who are thrown together by extenuating circumstances and how it evolves into new relationships and redefines existing one," said UI junior Brittney Swensen.
She plays Sharon, who is nine months pregnant and living on her own in a trailer park. She is forced to be on bed rest, and because she can’t afford to be in a hospital, she ends up taking care of herself.
When Jared shows up at her doorstep, she is responsible for taking care of him even though she can’t really do that much because of her pregnancy.
"We aren’t labeling anyone with an illness," Swensen said. "It’s realistic life, and we are more interested in how people interact with each other instead of spelling out what the story is about."
Iowa City native Ryann Sirois plays Miss Rider, the guidance counselor in the production. The 24-year-old has a form of Asperger syndrome, but her character in the play does not have a disability.
She said her biggest challenge is that sometimes she gets a little anxious about things, but she’s really enjoyed her experience working on the show.
"Seeing the audience’s reaction is what I’m looking forward to most," she said. "Some parts may be a touchy subject, but I think they will have a really good reaction."
Swensen described the show as a social experiment that doesn’t desire to produce a result or a conclusion. It is all open to the audience’s interpretation.
"If you come to the show, you’ll be surprised, because it is very impossible to know what to expect by just being given a description," she said.