State of the Arts: The beat goes on

One-man play Re-Calculating tackles drumming and disability... in a funny way

When quadriplegic drummer Dave Symington was asked to play a quadriplegic character in an intimate one-person play, his initial response was “no f***ing way.”

“Not a chance,” said Symington, who was more comfortable as a background performer. “Not a chance. But I really knew that I wanted to be able to say yes.”

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So he memorized a paragraph from his longtime friend’s play.

“The then-director said, ‘I think I see something,’” which was enough for Symington to commit.

It was a disability awareness play written by award-winning playwright, poet and performer Lucas Foss, which was performed for students, faculty and staff at post-secondary institutions around the province.

The award-winning Realwheels Theatre, which creates and produces performances that deepen audiences’ understanding of the disability experience, caught a show in early 2014 and moved to further develop the work.

Now Symington will perform the play, Re-Calculating, at CBC Studio 700, Jan. 22 to 24.

Re-Calculating takes audiences on character Jonathan Bishop’s personal journey as he wrestles with identity and relationships, his drum kit his constant companion.

Dramaturge Liesl Lafferty (Canary, A Town Called Hockey), who co-wrote this rendering of Re-Calculating with Foss, says the story is anchored on the death of Jonathan’s father.

“It’s basically just your standard coming to terms with who you are,” she said. “To a lesser extent, in this particular production, the injury is very important in that he didn’t use to have a disability and he has grown to be a different person with that, as well as just growing up.”

Jonathan’s various struggles resonated with Symington.

Symington’s mother had recently died when Foss asked him to tackle the role of Jonathan. The loss of his mother had provoked an identity crisis, panic attacks and intensified friction within his family.

“What I relate to is the journey, parts of his experience with disability and his awareness of, gee, you know, I’ve got a disability and I don’t treat other people with disabilities the way I want to be treated,” Symington said.

Like Symington, Jonathan is nearing age 50. But Jonathan was injured at 35, whereas Symington became quadriplegic as the result of a diving accident at age 19.

Symington is a longtime disability advocate and co-founded VAMS, the Vancouver Adapted Music Society, which supports and promotes musicians with physical disabilities in Metro Vancouver. He plays electronic drums and designed a Velcro glove to hold his sticks. Symington played in the poppy ’80s-style synth band Spinal Cord, which featured future mayor Sam Sullivan, and drums around town with other musicians, including Rolf Kempf, who wrote a song that Alice Cooper covered.

Symington hopes Re-Calculating will prompt audience members to reconsider stale beliefs.

Before he was quadriplegic, Symington thought he’d rather be dead than live with such a disability.

“You have these extreme opinions about things, but you realize it’s got no possible bearing on the quality of your life,” Symington said. “I’ve had just as many struggles before I had a disability as I did after... There’re still these core issues we deal with as humans and so sometimes these kinds of stories help to awaken some other deeper understanding.”

But Re-Calculating, directed by Jeffrey Renn, interim co-artistic director of Realwheels, is no therapy session.

Music helps tell the story, and for all its probing, Re-Calculating is a comedy.

“You get the message but you’re entertained,” said Lafferty.

Re-Calculating has become a reason for Symington to get out of bed in the morning. He’s pondering what challenge he’ll undertake next.

“Like memorizing famous poetry or something,” he said. “Learn a second language.”

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