Fort Greene theater group breaks barriers for disabled and neurodiverse performers
By Stephanie Meditz
At a time when Broadway begins to make strides towards accessibility and amplifying diverse voices, EPIC Players is already steps ahead.
From June 8-18, Fort Greene-based neuro-inclusive theater company EPIC Players will perform James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim’s iconic musical, “Into the Woods” in the Mezzanine at A.R.T./New York Theatre in Midtown.
Aubrie Therrien founded EPIC, which stands for “Empower, Perform, Include, Create,” in 2016 when she saw a need for disabled and neurodiverse artists to express themselves onstage.
She worked with her mother, a special education teacher, on plays for students based on their assigned reading and saw them blossom as performers.
Students who had trouble reading and speaking memorized lines and stood up in front of their entire school to perform, and their confidence and skill inspired her to continue working with disabled and neurodiverse individuals.
“I think overall at EPIC we presume confidence. We presume, not only that our actors can do what we’re asking them to do and rise to the challenge…but they also can grow. And that, I think, is the No. 1 thing that other companies perhaps don’t do,” she said.
Therrien said that disabled and neurodiverse performers often have to self-advocate instead of being in supportive environments in which their needs are met without question.
They are also commonly infantilized, she added, and the roles written for disabled individuals are stereotypical, inaccurate and typically written by able-bodied, neurotypical writers.
“You can’t be what you can’t see,” Therrien said.”Representation is very, very important. Just because you’re born with a disability doesn’t mean that you’re also not born with other things that you like to do, that you’re talented.”
“Into the Woods” music director Shane Dittmar’s first role in a musical was FDR in their high school production of “Annie.”
The director put them in a wheelchair so that, as a blind performer, they would not fall off the stage.
After catching the theater bug in high school, Dittmar fell in love with the music side of musicals and began writing music and music directing.
They hold a degree in music education and taught music at the Washington State School for the Blind for four years before moving to Midwood.
Dittmar first heard about EPIC from Sarah “Sair” Kaufman, whom they met on a Zoom pertaining to Roundabout Theatre Company’s virtual Reverb Theatre Arts Festival for disabled theater makers.
“We started writing together, and they told me all about working with EPIC and being part of it and sort of invited me to shows,” Dittmar said. “And then once I was here especially, it was a thing where Sair and I worked together as much as we humanly can.”
Since then, the two have made a name for themselves as a duo, “They & Them.”
Their major project is entitled “The Reality Shaper: A Musical Podcast,” an adaptation of several fantasy novels that Kaufman wrote during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The NonBinary Song”from the musical received more than fifty thousand likes on Kaufman’s TikTok account, and gained over half a million views across posts.
Kaufman joined EPIC during the pandemic and will play the Witch in “Into the Woods,” which has been three years in the making.
“We chose this show because…our actors never get the opportunity to play these classic characters and sing a score like this. Either they’re told they can’t or it’s too difficult…or that there’s no role for them,” Therrien said. “I think our actors really find levels that I didn’t even know existed in this show prior. I understand this show much more than I ever have, doing this production with our company.”
“They’re not explicitly written to be able-bodied or neurotypical either. We just assume anyone we don’t know is disabled, isn’t disabled,” Dittmar said. “Part of what’s cool about our production, too, is just allowing ourselves to explore adding that dimension to a thing that was just written by people who weren’t imagining a diversely abled world.”
As music director, Dittmar taught all seventy-one musical numbers in the score to the cast and rearranged harmonies to ensure that cast members sing in a comfortable range.
They did so with the help of assistant music director, EPIC player and fellow Brooklynite, Eric Fegan.
At the performances, they will lead the five-person pit band, play piano and conduct.
“I feel like I can achieve in storytelling and musical theater at the level of anybody else,” Dittmar said. “And that has been so good for my self-esteem. And when I got into doing these things…I found a community of people in theater because it was a group of people that I got along with and shared interests with that had nothing to do with my disability.”
“I have a visible disability. It’s very obvious. I have a big black dog with a harness that says ‘Guide Dog for the Blind’ or I have a big white stick,” they continued. “It is the first thing most people know about me. And getting to do theater and getting to do art stuff allows it to not be the most interesting thing people could know about me.”
EPIC has formed its own community – it had 20 members when it began in August 2016 and now boasts around 80 members, plus a growing waitlist.
It has also expanded its classes since its founding and now offers over 100 classes to its players.
Earlier this year, it introduced EPIC Jr., a free training program for students ages 12-17 with developmental disabilities.
“Now we’re kind of a sought-after resource for casting directors and other production companies who are also interested in…casting authentically and working with the disabled community,” Therrien said.
She also noted that several actors have received jobs in TV, film and on Broadway.
Ethan Homan, who plays the Steward in “Into the Woods,” was recently cast on CBS’ “Blue Bloods.”
“My hopes are that every theater is a neurodiverse theater,” Therrien said. “I also hope to see more neurodivergent and disabled artists represented on elevated platforms and start getting awards and validations for their work, which I think is really difficult with some of the obstacles in place to that.”
Tickets for “Into the Woods” are available at https://epicplayers.ticketspice.com/epic-players-presents-into-the-woods and range from $35-$65.
Sunday performances will begin at 2 p.m, while shows from Wednesday to Saturday are at 6:45 p.m.
“When you look at something like this, it’s really easy to see it as a human interest thing… and assume what the quality of it is going to be based on who it’s inclusive of and how it’s been designed to represent a community,” Dittmar said. “And if you make that assumption, you’re incredibly wrong. Our cast is legitimately fantastically amazing at their roles…it’s a really high quality production and I think in addition to being inclusive…it’s also just really good. Like, objectively good.”