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Judith Thompson play 'RARE' gives voice to Canadian actors with Down syndrome

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TORONTO - Nine actors are gathered in a downtown rehearsal space, performing a scene for the play "RARE" in which they reveal their fears and their thoughts on living independent lives and falling in love.

"I'm afraid of being on my own when my parents pass on," 28-year-old cast member Nick Herd confesses in a later interview.

"But I can take care of myself.... The way to do that is to keep the faith. Plus, I have a loving family around me ... and friends, too. I'm also part of the Down Syndrome Association."

Herd and his fellow cast members share their experiences of living with Down syndrome in "RARE," which runs Jan. 28 to Feb. 7 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto.

Renowned Canadian playwright Judith Thompson created and directs the production, which combines material written by cast members with Dickinson poetry and Shakespeare.

The show was a hit when it debuted at last year's Toronto Fringe Festival. This latest incarnation is a bit different and longer.

"They are so honest," says Thompson, who's received two Governor General's Awards for Drama as well as the Order of Canada.

"All of us as actors can learn so much from them, because there's no such thing as artifice, with most of them. ... They might fall to the floor or burst into tears, because it's there. Most of us hide it away in a closeted room somewhere that we might visit once in a while."

Thompson says she's always been interested in people's own stories — so much so that she begins her acting and playwriting classes at the University of Guelph by asking students to tell her a story of transformation, something that changed them.

"The stories are always riveting, knock-out. And they're never better actors, they're never better playwrights, because they're telling the truth," she says.

So when producer Brenda Surminski approached Thompson about five years ago with an idea for a play on women getting older, she agreed and created "Body and Soul." It featured non-professional actors between the ages of 45 and 80, telling their own stories.

That led to Thompson's play "SICK," which saw youth with chronic conditions delivering monologues on their lives.

"RARE" came as a result of keeping in touch with "SICK" cast member Krystal Nausbaum and her journalist mother, Madeleine Greey.

Nausbaum has Down syndrome and Thompson asked her if she wanted to star in a play featuring all actors with the chromosomal condition, "so they can tell the world who they are." Nausbaum agreed and Thompson got Greey to co-produce.

"There are people in this play that cry after their scripts," says Nausbaum, 23, an actress who has starred in three plays as well as the 2008 TV movie "The Memory Keeper's Daughter."

"It can be very emotional but it's really great when we're performing our personal stories onstage and having the audience really knowing what we're facing in life, having Down syndrome."

The "RARE" cast hails from around Toronto and ranges in age from 23 to 38. Singer-songwriter Victoria Carr, who is deaf and was also in "SICK," performs the music.

Thompson developed the script by holding workshops with the cast and finding out their personal stories.

"Their phrases are so organically poetic," says Thompson.

"They just come up with them naturally and as a playwright, I'm just in awe."

At the same time, she was careful to make sure the piece wasn't "too 'Rah, rah, Camp Courage, we can do anything.'"

"Yes, there's an element of that but it's very honest," says Thompson.

Thus the play has a scene in which Herd performs "The Dying Swan" short ballet.

Thompson wanted to use the dance piece "because that, in a way, is what the play became about — is that with prenatal testing and people so worried about having a child with a disability, people with Down syndrome may disappear," she says.

"That's not to place judgment, it's just to put it out there. And I think it's because of a lack of education and understanding. So they feel like they're the dying swan."

Thompson is working with the Young Centre over a three-year period, creating plays that represent various disabilities. Her next project will be partnered with Spinal Cord Injury Ontario and will star about six people in wheelchairs.

"My mandate has always been, as a playwright, to earn the privilege to help give voice to those who don't have much of a voice, or any," she says. "And I believe in this. It's really my honour."

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