Vancouverite Amy Amantea first attended an audio-described theatre production in 2016. She expected the descriptions, relayed live via headset, to detail what was happening on stage. “As the production started, the describer in my ear started saying, ‘The wheelchair user this’ and ‘The sign language user that,’ remembers Amantea. “And I thought, wait. These are my people. Why do I not know about this?”

Before losing her sight at age 24, Amantea was very involved in theatre—both on stage and in the audience. After, it was hard for her to imagine a place for herself there. “When you can’t see what is happening on stage or follow the plotline, it’s really easy to get disengaged,” explains Amantea. “And from an actor’s perspective I thought, who would want a blind actor? How do you navigate a stage, how do you read a script—and so, I kind of let that part of my life go." 

Realwheels Theatre Launches Free Acting Academy for Persons with DisabilitiesAmy Amantea (right) and Art Jonker performing in Comedy on Wheels. Photo credit: Tim Matheson

That 2016 performance was Realwheels Theatre’s Sexy Voices, and it was Amantea’s first introduction to the local theatre company devoted to deepening the understanding of the disability experience. Their mission includes making theatre accessible for people with disabilities—artists and audience members alike. 

Amantea dove right in to Realwheels’ world, joining the cast of both community devised theatre productions and earning roles in professional shows. “I just couldn’t stand not being a performer anymore,” she remembers. “Once I knew it was doable, I was like a dog with a bone.” Now, she’s the board president.

Earlier this month, Realwheels announced its very first Acting Academy. The three-year, tuition-free professional actor training program is the first in Western Canada, and was specifically developed for anyone who self-identifies as a person with a disability. This program doesn’t just break down the financial barriers that people with disabilities face—it was built from the ground up by and for the community. “Realwheels invited real people with disabilities who are interested in acting to the table before they even developed the idea of an Academy,” says Amantea. She herself was part of that process, and shared some of the barriers the team considered. For example:

“Say you’re an individual that requires a personal support worker. Somebody comes to your home and helps you shower, helps you get dressed, helps you with your meals, medications… and that is the first three hours of your day. School says they start at 9:00 but want you to be there at 8:30, and it’s taken you three hours just to get up and out of your house, with the support of somebody you have to pay… who may not be so happy to show up at 4:00 in the morning. That’s all a negotiation,” explains Amantea. 

Realwheels Theatre Launches Free Acting Academy for Persons with DisabilitiesCredit: Realwheels Theatre

Traditional theatre schools are known for rigid structure and gruelling hours, neither of which are conducive to accessibility.  “Sometimes you feel tokenized, or like you need to be their teaching moment,” says Amantea. The Realwheels Acting Academy aims to create an inclusive environment where many barriers to accessibility have already been worked through—and those that haven’t, will. “Everybody going into it gets that they have to be adaptable, even the students,” says Amantea. “We are all going to have to be adaptable, but we are all in a space where we can figure that out together.” There will be flexible, modular programming, small class sizes, and support for instructors to ensure they are meeting the needs of all students.

Realwheels Theatre Launches Free Acting Academy for Persons with DisabilitiesCredit: Realwheels Theatre

For Amantea, getting back into theatre felt like getting a part of herself back. “There’s a sense of loss when you acquire a disability,” she says, “and being involved in theatre again was the way of me being able to marry my old spirit with my new spirit.” According to Amantea, about 20 percent of Canadians identify as part of the disability community, but only 2 percent of roles in theatre, TV and film are for people with disabilities—and most are played by able-bodied actors. She says in order to have representation on stage, you need to have trained actors, and Realwheels is taking concrete steps in providing accessible training. 

The Realwheels Acting Academy is accepting 15 individuals over the age of 18 who self-identify as part of the disability community (from Realwheels: “including but not limited to people with disabilities, disabled people, people with hidden disability, and neurodiverse”). The application deadline is June 30, 2021. You can read more about it here.