Feb. 10, 2023

School of Creative and Performing Arts explores accessibility and inclusivity in theatre with Argonautika

Visually impaired actor Ashley King cast to perform alongside students
The cast of Argonautika (Jason and his Argonauts)
Scott Reid

Tony Award-winning director and playwright Mary Zimmerman is known for adapting classical literature into contemporary, lively theatrical works. Her work Argonautika is a modern re-telling of the Greek epic poem Jason and the Argonauts by Apollonius of Rhodes.

Director and Master of Fine Arts candidate Randi Edmundson brings the myth of Jason, his Argonauts and their quest for the Golden Fleece to the stage Feb. 10 to 18 in the University Theatre.

It’s a true spectacle featuring mythology’s favourite gods, monsters, creatures and more. I’m playing with what makes live theatre fun and exciting. The production has a playful, grand, spectacular feeling, with live music, singing, dancing and acrobatics.

The cast for this production might look somewhat different, as the large ensemble was not cast according to gender lines. “We're unpacking what it is to play a character that might be or express a different gender than you — what it can tell us about our expectations of gender,” says Edmundson.

Another unique aspect is that one of the cast members who plays the role of Idmon, a blind seer, is in fact legally blind. Edmundson wanted to move away from casting actors who pretend to have a disability and instead, try to work with someone who understands and has a lived experience.

She reached out to Inside Out Theatre, a deaf and disability theatre company in Calgary, to ask if they knew any blind performers for this role. Ashley King, artistic associate at Inside Out Theatre with a background in acting, was interested and connected with Edmundson.

“The script has a modern-day feel to it and I felt it would be exciting to work on. I had never played someone who is blind on stage,” says King, who lost 98 oer cent of her sight when she was 19 years old, as a result of being poisoned on vacation.

“The team was welcoming and encouraging, they offered so much space for me and my accessibility needs. I was excited to come on board and I felt safe to do so.”

Argonautika during rehearsals

The kindness and thoughtfulness of the drama students have given Ashley King hope for future acting experiences as a visually impaired artist.

Tim Nguyen Co

For King, preparing for the role was a similar process as what other students do, but with some extra steps. The initial table read, where everyone comes together to read through the script, was the most challenging part for King.

“I use technology to read my lines out loud (in my ear), but it doesn’t always work perfectly. Sometimes the documents aren’t set up in a format that works with the technology.”

Being an outsider in a large group of students was intimidating and daunting. King had to learn and attribute a lot of bodies and voices to names. From the very beginning, the production team and students created a welcoming environment and tried their best to accommodate her.

“It was great to work in an environment where there were resources and people willing to make it easier on my behalf,” says King. “A lot of folks anticipated my needs before I even had to think about them, which was really lovely because that’s generally not the case in day-to-day experiences living with a disability.”

King hopes her presence can provide a little bit of education on what it’s like to work with people with disabilities, how to create inclusive practices in the workspace and how to not be scared of it.

“Everything is adaptable. There are ways to create theatre,” says King. “If you open up your spaces to different experiences, you’re going to have richer performances.”

Argonautika runs until Feb. 18 in the University Theatre. UCalgary students and employees can get tickets at a reduced rate. The production is directed by MFA candidate Randi Edmundson, with set/lighting design by MFA candidate Cassie Holmes and costume/props design by MFA candidate Bonnie Garland. Sound sesign and composition by Alixandra Cowman. The Feb. 18 performance is accessible for blind and low-vision audiences, with a pre-show touch tour and audio description during the show.