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Troupe for actors with developmental disabilities flourishes

August 28, 2018
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In a August 21, 2018 photo, Monica Venice, who plays a fortune teller, dances between scenes during a rehearsal in the Opal Center for Arts & Education in downtown Cottage Grove, Ore. For the second year, director Carmen Dowell (rear) is directing a play in Cottage Grove written and performed by actors with special needs. (Brian Davies/The Register-Guard via AP)

COTTAGE GROVE, Ore. (AP) — Monica Venice of Cottage Grove loves to perform in plays.

About 10 years ago, however, the 51-year-old was rejected for a one-word part in a community play simply because she has Down syndrome.

That rejection led to the creation last year of Creative Chaos, a theater group for people with disabilities who have a passion for acting.

Creative Chaos founder Carmen Dowell said this year’s group has nine people with developmental disabilities who will perform in the circus play “Under the Big Top!” Each cast member was able to choose their character, including a gorilla, a lion tamer, a unicorn trainer, a bearded lady and Annie, based on the character from the movie “Annie.”

The first of several performances of “Under the Big Top!” is less than three weeks away, on Sept. 15. Performances will take place in a small theater in the Opal Center for Arts & Education in downtown Cottage Grove.

On a recent afternoon, Dowell oversaw actors as they gathered for a rehearsal — complete with props, wigs and stuffed animals — in the theater.

The actors, who range from 18 years old to more than 60 years old, worked through their lines. They took turns offering encouraging words to one another and giggled when someone forgot their lines.

Gary Hilgendorf, who will play a clown, is looking forward to the upcoming performances. “I’m going to be a clown who juggles invisible balls,” he said, smiling. “Last year, I was The Joker. That was pretty fun.”

This is the second year of performances by Creative Chaos, which was inspired by Venice’s experience a decade ago.

Back then, Dowell took Venice — her best friend — to try out for a play at a community theater. The part was small, and Venice had just one line — “No.”

Venice had never been in a play before but figured she could handle saying one word to an audience.

She never auditioned.

As the two were waiting for Venice’s turn, Dowell said she was asked outside by the play’s director.

The director “asked why I was doing this to her, and telling me that this puts her in a position not to cast” Venice, Dowell said. “At first, I didn’t know what she was talking about.”

But then it clicked.

“I had never seen such blatant discrimination of someone with a disability,” Dowell said.

Dowell and Venice left the theater feeling a little defeated and angry. But Dowell vowed to continue to help Venice find her place on stage.

“We just kept trying and trying,” Dowell said. “And about two years after her first audition, I think in 2012, (Venice) got a part in the play ‘Gypsy,’ and she finally got to be on stage and feel like she was just like everyone else.”

Venice was later cast in four more plays and three fashion shows. Her friends noticed and asked Dowell to help them get on stage, which prompted an idea: Why not start a theater group just for people with disabilities? It took a while to find a rehearsal space, but last year Creative Chaos was formed.

The group’s motto is, “Chaos can be a beautiful thing, if you choose to embrace it.”

Dowell volunteered about 90 minutes per week for most of August to help prepare the actors for the upcoming play. The number of rehearsals will increase as the September opening night approaches. Dowell, who acts in Creative Chaos productions, also makes costumes and builds small structures for the stage.

She estimates that she spends more than 100 hours per season on Creative Chaos plays — a commitment born of her love for the group.

“They bring me so much joy,” Dowell said. “Just watching them be so happy and excited, and fulfilling their dreams of being on stage fills my heart. There’s so much negativity and bad stuff in the world, and I look forward to seeing them. We’ve sort of become a little family.”

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Information from: The Register-Guard, http://www.registerguard.com

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