Founder Sick + Twisted Theatre
Debbie Patterson is a Winnipeg, Canada-based theatre performer who turned her disability into a learning environment for actors and audiences alike through her troupe, Sick + Twisted Theatre.
In the beginning of her career, Patterson, a well-known local theatre performer, was billed as the world’s only topless accordion player. She went on to become a founding member of Shakespeare in the Ruins theatre company (plays held in a former monastery in a beautiful historic site) and has served as Artistic Associate of Prairie Theatre Exchange and as Theatre Ambassador for Winnipeg’s Cultural Capital year.
Becoming someone with a disability was devastating to her as a performer. While there are a few disabled theatre troupes in North America, none was close to home.
“I created Sick + Twisted Theatre because when I became disabled, I thought I had to give up working in theatre. I didn’t have any models. I didn’t know anyone with a disability who was able to work on stage. All my training as an actor was very physical and I liked doing really physically demanding work.”
Patterson realized there were others in the same predicament, not only willing and able to perform but looking for training in the art. Sick+twisted not only offers performance opportunities but performing development as well.
“We need to represent the truth of the lived experience of disability. That can’t happen if no disabled people have the skills they need to do the work. So creating opportunities to train and develop is essential to the goal of bringing more authentic representation of disability on stage.
“I’m certain I wouldn’t have been able to get the training I did in the body I have now. So I felt like creating sick and twisted would be a way of addressing those barriers for me and my disabled peers.”
She says there is an irony inherent in theatre because “Every theatre has wheelchair seating, every theatre expects wheelchair users to show up and buy a ticket. It seems disingenuous to presume that no wheelchair user could ever be on stage”
Realistic representation of disability is a societal necessity according to Patterson to break through the pervading stereotypes.
“It seems to me that most representations of disability in our culture are created by people without disabilities for people without disabilities. And I see these representations falling into two categories: the cautionary tale (like the impaired driving ads that show a person in a wheelchair regretting all their life choices) or the inspiration porn (isn’t it amazing that this disabled person can live a normal life!). The latter is usually followed by a request for donations to some service organization or medical research.
“As a person with a disability, I am neither a tragedy nor hero. Nor am I a reason for you to open your wallet and give charitably.
The Covid mantra “we are all in this together” is true for Patterson’s view of disability as well.
“We all have bodies that disappoint us, that fail to do what we want them to do. Understanding how to live with that failure, that disappointment is part of the work of being human. People with disabilities are really good at doing this work, we can help the rest of you figure it out.”
Patterson’s experience of disability being so very personal, it is inherently political as well.
“One thing I love about disability is the way it disrupts capitalism. Capitalism insists that we have value only as far as we are able to “produce”. But disability reminds us that human beings have inherent value. We don’t have to work at it. We are valuable just the way we are.”
Sick + Twisted Theatre has performed Three Penny Opera and the original Sargent & Victor & Me, as well as original annual cabarets including Lame Is… Find out more at sickandtwisted.ca