The creators behind King Arthur’s Night — a showcase of accessible art with a neurodiverse cast — share the stories of its past, present and future.
It started as an experiment: What would happen if those we presume should follow are given the space to lead? And for Vancouver’s Neworld Theatre Company, the results led to the momentous success of King Arthur’s Night — a production with a neurodiverse cast that’s been invited to perform at the Hong Kong Performing Arts Festival this March. This is the second collaboration between Artistic Director Marcus Youssef, musician Veda Hille, and the show's co-writer and lead Niall McNeil. And while the production will account for one third of the festivals neurodiverse programming, Youssef says Neworld doesn't identify as a mixed ability or diversity company. “We have a section that is because of our long history of working together,” says Youssef, who met his collaborators while working on another show in 2000. McNeil, the only person at our table of six with Down Syndrome, doesn’t hesitate to let Youssef know that hurts his feelings. So far, our interview at Commercial Drive’s Skylight Diner felt playful, with the only debate being over whether to order Ukrainian sausage or bacon with breakfast. “We met you as a theatre artist first,” Hille jumps in. “We’d been working with you anyways, but the show became mixed ability because we invited more diverse people in.” The trio of artists all met around 2000, when McNeil was 18 and already a veteran of the theatre world. They became collaborators—a word McNeil teaches us to do in sign language before proceeding with the interview—in 2011 on Neworld’s Peter Panties. “At the very last minute I realized, Oh My God, we haven’t told anyone in the Down Syndrome community about it, which is ridiculous because Niall is in the play, he co-wrote the play,” Youssef says, ignoring the hand puppet McNeil is making talk beside him. From left, Niall McNeil, Veda Hille and Marcus Youusef. (Photo: James Long) “It wasn’t that ridiculous,” McNeil says before pointing to Youssef. “He talks too much and too fast—that’s his disability.” After members from the Down Syndrome Research Foundation saw Peter Panties, Neworld was approached to start teaching theatre classes at DSRF. “We started to wonder if our collaboration was just a thing because Niall grew up in the theatre community,” says Youssef (McNeil was only six when he performed in his first Shakespeare play). “But then we realized the way that we work together can be extended to people with neurological differences that we don’t know as well.”
“In the beginning he would just nod and that was it, but we’d be riveted,” Youssef says. “It was the most dramatic thing we’d ever seen in our lives, so we wrote him a non-verbal role.”The company has hosted classes at the DSRF for three years, and invited three of their students to be in King Arthur’s Night. Including the live band and classically trained choir, the show involves 40 artists. “Niall’s vision was always big, but logistically and financially it’s a huge undertaking each time we mount the show,” says Youssef. In fact Neworld wasn’t able to mount King Arthur’s Night until 2017, when Toronto’s Luminato offered significant funding. But having years between the show's prototype and presentation was vital for the team. “When we first worked with Matthew, we thought he was non-verbal,” says Hille, in recognition of the actor who plays a goatherd. “In the beginning he would just nod and that was it, but we’d be riveted,” Youssef says. “It was the most dramatic thing we’d ever seen in our lives, so we wrote him a non-verbal role.” But soon, Matthew Tom-Wing started speaking, and the strengths of his disability only became more defined — just like the crutches used by the goat characters that transform into guns for soldiers later in the play. The artistic team’s unique, non-hierarchical structure allowed the neurodiverse actors to do what they do best — be present and respond to their impulses. “And we respond to theirs because our neurology allows us to process information in that way,” says Youssef. Both performers Tiffany King (Guenevere) and Andrew Gordon (a Saxon), choreograph their own dances each night, requiring the neurotypical dancers to follow. The improvised nature of the show gives a uniqueness to each performance, some of which Neworld offer as “relaxed” shows. These versions omit loud noises and flashing lights that may upset neurodiverse audiences. For Nick Sommer, a member of the queer choir Cor Flammae, these performances were his favourite to sing in. “Art can be elite and antagonist, but it should be experienced by anyone who can gain truth from it,” says Sommer. When he was invited to help Hille and McNeil workshop the show’s music, he didn’t anticipate how much he’d gain from working with artists with such diverse lived experiences. “As a queer person, to see people who—regardless of sexuality—live with disabilities, and to see it portrayed as a point of strength or point of honour, that experience is something I will always take away.” To give the experience of the show a sense of permanence, King Arthur’s Night recorded an album which will be released on February 22. Two nights later, Youssef and McNeil will MC the cast’s first and only concert at The Cultch. This will also include select songs from Peter Panties, and be the debut of their music video. The video was filmed at Commercial Drive’s SuperValu, where McNeil just celebrated his 11 year work anniversary. The 24-hour grocery store temporarily closed for business so the performers could have a battle in the salsa aisle — donned in Shakespearean costumes from the Stratford Festival, no less. “After witnessing how we work together, the film crew was asking us all for hugs, wanting to be a part of what Marcus and Niall set up,” Hille says. The grocery store was the perfect setting to demonstrate the ways this project interweaves McNeil’s personal life, work life and Arthurian life. Experimenting with rewriting the roles neurodiverse people are often cast in resulted in a collaboration between people with dissimilar lived experiences who shared a common goal— to make meaningful, accessible art. Neworld Theatre can’t promise King Arthur’s Night will run again in Vancouver, so the album release party may be Vancouver's last chance to catch a glimpse of this world! Get tickets to the album's release party here, coming to the Cultch on Sunday, February 24.