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Radical listening, radical touch 

click to enlarge Laura Spray of Chapel Hill (an autistic and mentally handicapped participant) points to a tablet to communicate responses to questions. She wrote a haiku for the performance utilizing an assisted typing program. - DEREK ANDERSON
  • Derek Anderson
  • Laura Spray of Chapel Hill (an autistic and mentally handicapped participant) points to a tablet to communicate responses to questions. She wrote a haiku for the performance utilizing an assisted typing program.

Two men sit across from each other on an otherwise empty stage. Half a globe, half a world, rests on the floor halfway between them—and since the two are just now a world apart, the stage image is telling, appropriate. The older man on the right says, "I thought everyone was being heard." After a moment, the one on the left replies: "You need a new kind of listening to learn from me."

It is an audacious claim. It is also undeniably a statement of fact, one that is being demonstrated in the very moment his words are heard on stage. This is because the young man's voice is clearly synthesized. His words are coming from an amplified speaker, and not a human's lips. And since that single sentence took over a half-hour for him to enter, keystroke by keystroke, on the computer through which he talks with the world, we ought to take it seriously. It physically took a lot for him to say it.

Meet Chris Mueller-Medlicott, an outspoken—if non-speaking—young man of 20. He's not just one of the performers in the Community Inclusive Theatre Group's production of The Song that Greens the Earth. He's one of the playwrights as well.

Mr. Mueller-Medlicott has cerebral palsy. He also has more than a touch of the poet: His lines possess an enviable economy, and the vivid, unexpected turns of phrase within them bring the world of his experiences into sharp focus. They also indict a medical and educational system whose early misdiagnoses of profound mental retardation effectively sentenced him to years of something more akin to warehousing instead of education, until age 15. "The effect on me was damn frightening," he says. "Big lesson I got defending my intelligence. Got me terrified of uneducated popular opinion, wanting me to mirror cloned 'normals.'" In another place, four words describe his early memories: "I felt deleted daily."

But as Mueller-Medlicott sits in his wheelchair on the stage of Fletcher Opera House at the Progress Energy Center this evening, his words move from indictment to inquiry to praise. Theater—this theater, this group—allows what he calls the "miscued years" to finally die.

There is at least one other poet here: Laura Spray, a young, non-speaking woman with autism, and a Web-based business, www.haikuloop.com, where she sells her own brand of designer bracelets whose beads are laced with the words of her unique haikus. Ms. Spray's words and dance are featured in the performance as well, "soaring, roaring the message." She writes poetically of her condition: "I look like this, but I live like water."

Richard Reho, the production's director and a 25-year veteran in human services, isn't trying to build a show. He's intent on building a community as well. From his experience in the 1990s creating the Monadnock Theater and Arts Cooperative in New York, Mr. Reho knows firsthand what happens when people go through a creative process together: "They recognize themselves and each other in a deeper way. The group finds a way to empower individual voices toward speaking truth, speaking and living a little more authentically."

Where can that lead individuals, and communities? "To determine how they define 'quality of life,' what kinds of individuals they want to be, and not just be fed what they 'should' be from all those sources out there," he notes.

Thus a group of people, some with disabilities, some not, have convened at least once a week for a year now, co-creating script, music, movement and the performance Raleigh sees this week. All of them are in search of what Reho calls "a new kind of mystery drama" from the ancient Greek tradition, "where people begin to connect with the spiritual in each other in a direct and authentic way. Not a theater of creating character, but of lifting the veils away from character, and toward authentic self." In an interview, Mueller-Medlicott notes that Reho's "trying for real feelings forces people to talk about their feeling around the disability community."

So what exactly does "a new kind of listening" involve? Patience—and stamina—on all sides. And, sometimes, a different kind of speaking as well.

Margaret Heath does both in her work in Facilitated Communication with both Mueller-Medlicott and Spray. In this process, she supports her clients' arms at a keyboard, assisting them as they point to the individual letters of the words they want to communicate. Heath calls the work "the epiphany of listening and being with another person; letting them come through, putting all of your personal opinions aside."

For all that, it is a time-consuming process, influenced by the client's ability to coordinate their body and emotional state. Polly Medlicott, Chris' mother, confirms the effort and patience involved. "When Chris gets tense, it's more difficult for him to move."

After his interview, Heath reports that Mueller-Medlicott "worked so hard to answer, and did extremely well." Even so, it took him an hour and a quarter to type the answer concerning Reho's work.

For his part, director Reho recalls an example of radical listening during one of the rehearsals for this performance. "At one point, Chris' mom said she could see him one day as a director. After that, he got very, very agitated, and we stopped."

"His keyboard was there," Reho remembered. "And for two hours, the cast stood with him in communion while Chris typed out 'I need my own voice,' and the words about his own future."

"It was a beautiful moment. Time stood still. Nobody looked at their watch. We all wanted to create that space for Chris to speak. And ultimately, that became part of the performance."

But not before the group had to help him find his voice. An actor had been recruited to pre-record Mueller-Medlicott's lines onto a CD for the production. The problem? "He just didn't feel like that was his voice," Ms. Medlicott says. "He wanted a synthesized voice. He felt if it was not somebody else's voice, he could claim it as his own." The group found software, and then modified the synthetic voice so the audience could understand it, taking it to a lower register and slowing it down.

But audiences might find the sense of touch the most compelling part of Wednesday's performance. In the rehearsal I note my own responses as group members slowly extend their hands toward one another's faces.

Perhaps touch is one of the final barriers between people. As company members touch one another and touch Mueller-Medlicott, one senses a profound reconnection taking place. People with disabilities report they are routinely denied eye contact and touch. "How would I behave if I was never touched with real feeling?" Reho asks. "That deprivation is extraordinary."

As the people make contact in front of me, I sense for myself what Reho means when he says, "Part of the 'mystery drama' we're doing is about touch. Very much so."

If you would witness any one of several mysteries, they stand revealed Wednesday night in Raleigh. Admission is free.

  • The art of the disabled


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