Circle of Life
New Theater Company Brings Brings Disability To Center Stage
by David-Elijah Nahmod
Circle of Life Theater is a theater company with a mission. The idea of artistic director Joseph T. Hege and Executive Director Fritz Lambandrake is to cast disabled performers in shows where they will perform with fully abled actors.
Circle of Life Theater has booked San Francisco's Victoria Theater for its first full scale production: the suspense thriller, Wait Until Dark. The nail-biter about a young blind artist defending herself against a home invasion will be presented for the first time (as far as we know) with two blind actresses alternating in the lead role.
Lambandrake and Hege met when both were singing with the San Francisco's Gay Men's Chorus.
"We became fast friends," Lambandrake said. "Joe is the head of the chorus "spirit team," which is a small group that helps ill or dying members with their physical or practical needs. I created a 32-member, round-the-clock caregiver team who provided one of our chorus brothers with the constant assistance he needed after his bone marrow transplant. During this several months long period, Joe and I came to know each other and we discovered our common love of theater, an art form which we have both loved since childhood."
Until the curtain rises at the Victoria in the Fall, Circle of Life will be presenting A C.O.L.T. Following, a series of cabaret performances at various venues around town. These performances will feature many of Circle's stock players, along with guest performers. A C.O.L.T. Following will serve to introduce the company to the community.
"A C.O.L.T. Following is San Francisco's weekly, Tuesday night fun friendly sexy cool cocktail party and variety show with a great DJ and a spotlight on many of the talented singers, dancers, actors and comedians and other performers discovered by us," Lambandrake. "The lineup of acts is completely new every week. It's the place to meet friends for two hours of fun with no cover charge. Drop in when you can."
Circle of Life is now looking for a donated office space where they can permanently hang their hats. Lambandrake is also talking to the promoters of clubs and cabarets around town so that A. C.O.L.T. Following can become the weekly event it seeks to be at a rotating series of venues.
C.O.L.T. had a successful first showing at Beatbox last week, and Lambandrake is confident that additional spaces will soon be obtained. At the premiere, an audience of around forty gathered at the Beatbox for the inaugural show. The crowd enthusiastically applauded the various performers, many of whom had overcome great obstacles in order to get to where they are.
Caitlin Hernandez, 24, was born blind. The out singer/songwriter, who possesses a beautifully expressive voice, sat at the keyboard and performed the title tune from the musical Dreaming in Color. It was her own composition.
"Nobody can erase these dreams that I create, I'm taking back my life, I'm deciding my own fate," she sang. Hernandez spoke about what the song means to her.
"Whether they have special needs or not, when a person finds the confidence to shape their own future and ignore the naysayers, the result is life-changing," she said. "Those first few steps and risks are often hard, but because of that, reaching your goals is even more rewarding."
Hernandez' performance drew thunderous applause. The evening also included a few numbers from Paradox, Circle of Life's in-house a capella singing group. Paradox voices include Hernandez, Lambandrake, and autistic performance artist Sam Rubin, among others.
Lambandrake described Paradox as "a pop-rock vocal band with both abled and disabled singers, songwriters, arrangers and beatboxers. Paradox offers playlist-worthy original songs as well as innovative covers and mash-ups of the hottest music from today's top 100 artists such as Pink and Maroon 5.
Influencing every Paradox arrangement are past and present influences from a variety of musical genres including jazz, R & B, rap, Broadway, opera, country and the American songbook of standards written by the likes of Cole Porter and Duke Ellington."
Circle of Life, A C.O.L.T. Following and Paradox have quickly won the hearts of the disabled community.
"Circle of Life brings real disability to the stage," said Belo Cipriani, an openly gay blind writer. "Unlike other theater companies who often cast able-bodied actors to play disabled characters, Circle of Life makes the disability authentic by casting actors with disabilities in their shows. I feel very excited, because we're often not included."
At press time, Lambandrake remains in talks with several club owners about securing additional venues for A C.O.L.T. Following. It shouldn't be too long, he said, until the cabaret shows become a weekly event.
In addition to Wait Until Dark, C.O.L.T. has full scale productions of The Elephant Man and Big River in the works. Upcoming original productions include Samlandia, an autobiographical play starring Sam Rubin, a talented and personable young man who now towers above the autism which no longer controls him.
Information on all these projects can be found at the Circle of Life website, www.circleoflifetheatre.org. Lambandrake urges people who are interested in attending A C.O.L.T Following to check the site regularly. Information will be updated as performance spaces are procured.
If you have a bar, a club or a small restaurant and would like to host A C.O.L.T. Following, please email Lambandrake at email@example.com
All shows and events are ADA accessible.