EPIC Players Act on Inclusion of the ‘Alter-Abled’ | chelseanow.com

EPIC Players Act on Inclusion of the ‘Alter-Abled’

L to R: Samantha Elisofon, Christian Patane, Gideon Pianko and Travis Burbee in rehearsal for “Dog Sees God.” Photo by Charlene Warner.

BY SCOTT STIFFLER | Guided by a vision whose ambition handily matches the scale of its name, EPIC Players theatre company is comprised of alter-abled actors, designers, and technicians who study, train, and work alongside their “neurotypical” counterparts.

This acronym-friendly troupe is so inclusive, EPIC (“Empower. Perform. Include. Create.”) even found a way to embrace the palindrome. “Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead” — playwright Bert V. Royal’s mostly bleak, totally unauthorized, 2004 imagining of the “Peanuts” gang during their difficult teenage years — will be the company’s inaugural Mainstage production. 

As founder Aubrie Therrien, who also serves as the group’s executive artistic director, explained, “We chose ‘Dog Sees God’ for our first play to mirror the innocence of ‘You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown’ and also give our actors living with developmental disabilities a chance to explore themes of sexuality, gender, and loss — issues they often struggle with, just like everyone else, but are never really given the opportunity to express. Too often these individuals are infantilized based on their differences; we wanted to change that.”

Advocating for a deeper understanding of the alter-abled is only one goal on the group’s agenda. “Ninety-five percent of characters with disabilities,” their website notes, “are played by able-bodied actors.” EPIC wants to improve that statistic by providing its members with the tools to present themselves as a competitive, even preferred, choice in an industry where a sea of talent vies for a small pool of jobs. While the company rehearses for its two yearly Mainstage productions, members also work to enhance audition preparation, scene study, on-camera acting, and “industry networking” (aka schmoozing) skills. Formal auditions are held once a year, but the general public has the opportunity to drop in on classes and workshops for $25 a pop.

Once accepted into EPIC, anyone can pitch a film, play, solo show, or other project to Therrien. That’s the roundabout way “Dog Sees God” got its director, David Bonderoff. “I was one of the founding members,” he recalled of not-too-distant 2016, “but was not part of the production team. I auditioned as an actor, then had the opportunity to create an improv class,” which set the stage for his work at the helm of the play.

Bonderoff, who holds certificates in acting with the Stella Adler Studio and in improvisation with the Upright Citizens Brigade Training Center, played the role of Beethoven in a production of “Dog” prior to graduating from Stony Brook University in 2015. “It was one of my first shows,” he said, while recalling how his own formative experience as an actor paralleled that of the cast he’s been directing.

“It was a great environment for self-improvement and learning,” Bonderoff said of the rehearsal process. “It gave us the chance to tackle conceptual things within the play, like actors’ motivations, and really getting down to raw feelings; things we don’t get to talk about when we’re not discussing it in terms of the characters we’re playing. We really discovered ourselves and our relationship with the people we’re working next to.” 

L to R: Christian Patane, Gideon Pianko and Travis Burbee as characters who might remind you of those found in a certain comic strip. Photo by Charlene Warner.

The cast, Bonderoff noted, includes “people living with vision impairment, developmental disabilities including autism, and other general challenges.” Developmental disability and autism, he clarified, “are found within a wide range of neurological characteristics, a spectrum that even includes people who are aligned with the term ‘neurotypical.’ It’s a spectrum because everyone is on it in some way.”

Bonderoff, whose approach to preferred nomenclature is less about being politically correct and more about respectful fluidity according to personal preference, said he considers himself neurotypical — but quickly added, “If referring to myself as that were to make somebody uneasy, I would change the way I use the language. The way I see it, as a cis straight white male, I need to be more open to everyone else and who they are.” Echoing an exercise familiar to actors who tap into empathy as a means of character development, Bonderoff said, of relating to others, “I have no concept of what they are going through, so I do my best to listen, hear, and observe.”

Asked if alter-abled cast members brought any unique strengths to the process, Bonderoff referenced the play’s themes of isolation and disenchantment, along with its plot points of bullying and suicide. “This play covers a lot of fragile characters,” he noted, “with people just trying to do their best and live life. And these people [the actors] are so honest; so true to themselves. I view acting as an expression of truth, and sometimes what we need to see on stage is not an actor putting on a show, but a real human being living in the moment. … Our mission is simply to say, with the right amount of preparation, this population can put on a show that an audience will be invested in and impressed by.”

The EPIC Players, a resident company of Horse Trade Theater Group, will perform “Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead” July 27–Aug. 6; Thurs.–Sat. at 7pm, Sun. at 2pm. At The Kraine Theater (85 E. Fourth St., btw. Bowery & Second Ave.). For tickets ($25, $20 for students/seniors/military), visit epicplayersnyc.org. For audition and workshop info, email info@epicplayersnyc.org. On Facebook: facebook.com/epicplayersnyc.