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    Posted March 1, 2011

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History is Being Made at the Geva Theatre Center: Authentic Casting in a Hit Regional Play

By Pearl Brady, Eastern Equal Employment Opportunity Business Representative

photo: Ken Huth

If you see a production of OTHELLO or PACIFIC OVERTURES, it probably doesn't strike you as odd if you see an African American man playing the titular Shakespearean general or an Asian American cast singing the glorious Sondheim score. When it comes to characters who have disabilities, though, rarely are those performing the roles Actors with disabilities.

Not so in the Geva Theatre Center production of OVER THE TAVERN in Rochester, NY. Tom Dudzick's autobiographical play about a working-class family in 1950s Buffalo has been a regional hit since its debut in 1994, but only now has one of its characters had his true essence unlocked.

Once of the play's characters, Georgie, is based on Dudzick's brother, Michael, who was born with Down Syndrome. Never before has the role been played by an Actor with a developmental disability, but when Skip Greer came on board to direct the Geva production, authentic casting was a no-brainer. With the help of Assistant Director Susan Ware, a teacher of theatre and dance who has worked with people with developmental disabilities for over 25 years, Greer was able to find his ideal Georgie in 16-year-old singer-actor Andrew Rondeau.

photo: Ken Huth

"Andrew is a remarkable young actor," says Greer. "He is a very specific active listener, and brings a truth and heart to the role that has proven invaluable to the company. Andrew's generous spirit helped the acting ensemble forge the Pazinki's family dynamics. He's unforgettable, and the integrity he brings to the role of Georgie lifts the experience of all those around him. He's taught all of us so much about the daily life of the Pazinski's: their weariness and their passion. Georgie brings out the best in the family-he is a constant reminder of patience and joy. Andrew brings that to Georgie and, by extension, to all of us."

This will also mark the first time in the Equity collective memory that an Actor with Down Syndrome will be working under an Equity contract in a professional production.

For many decades, Equity has been at the forefront in fighting for diverse and inclusive casting. A particular challenge the Union has faced is in regard to the hiring of Performers with Disabilities, or PWDs. Though multi-racial casting has become an expectation of audiences nationwide, the same has not carried over as quickly for characters who use wheelchairs, have Down Syndrome, or have any number of disabilities.

photo: Ken Huth

Since 2008, AEA has been an leading supporter of the I AM PWD (Inclusion in the Arts and Media of People With Disabilities) campaign, a tri-union effort to see PWDs fully integrated into the American scene depicted on stage and screen.

Eastern Regional Director Rick Berg visited the production during rehearsals. "This is a groundbreaking casting choice," says Berg. "Actors with developmental disabilities have been almost entirely absent from our professional stages, and I'm thrilled to see Geva break this barrier. I think it will inspire other producers to more seriously consider hiring Actors with disabilities."

Over the Tavern plays through March 13th at the Geva Theatre Center, 75 Woodbury Blvd, Rochester, NY.

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