Off the beaten path of Madison's traditional downtown theater scene lies a nontraditional company, Encore Studio for the Performing Arts. Encore is situated off the Beltline at the Fish Hatchery exit, but the location alone is not what makes it unique. The troupe is a professional theater company for people with disabilities. Its current show, Different Dreams (through May 17), is a series of loosely connected vignettes that explore the hopes and aspirations of the cast.
Different Dreams opens with the actors on stage, some in wheelchairs, some standing. One speaks with the help of a communication device. As an audience member, I was struck from the very first moment by the privilege of seeing such a diverse group. It's rare to see even one disabled performer, much less so many. In the opening scene, they share with us their childhood dreams -- to be an astronaut, a minister, a musician -- followed quickly by their realities.
"I work in a fast food restaurant," states one. "I clean floors," says another. Later, certain cast members visit a Dream Insurance agent, played brightly by Jessica Jane Witham, a local actor who is also the company's program director. The agent offers insurance at a high premium in case their dreams don't work out.
The strongest scene in the show is its centerpiece, a group therapy session where the disabled members of the cast, along with others playing a parent and a special-ed teacher, debate the point of even having dreams. Some find dreams crucial for keeping them from everyday despair. Others, like Alex (winningly played by Connie Alsum) question the validity of dreams for the disabled community. When special ed teacher Mr. Jenkins (Damon Butler) asks Alex why she's given up on her dreams despite his encouragement, she admonishes him, reminding him of the realities of discrimination, physical limitation and the depression both can bring.
This dialogue also applies to people who are not themselves disabled but are affected by disabilities nonetheless. Mom Nina (Heather Renken) also contends with her lost dreams. Like many mothers, she put her own life on the back burner when she had children. This was done with the belief that her children would be smart, talented and, of course, good looking. Both of her sons end up having autism, and she is worried that neither will ever be happy. As a mother of a disabled child myself, I appreciated seeing a parent like this represented.
Is happiness the fulfillment of one's dreams? Or is it what we feel -- or don't feel -- along the way? These are resonant questions asked by the show, and audience members can certainly find relevance for their own lives. Different Dreams reminds us that theater is a powerful tool for expressing important social concerns and to provide a forum for all sorts of voices and life experiences. I highly recommend this unique and worthwhile show. Sometimes traveling a little way off the beaten path gives us a whole new perspective.