Acting, drawing, thriving

A new perspective on disability

By - Oct 19th, 2010 04:00 am

MPT Artistic Director Barbara Leigh

What do you picture when you think of someone with a disability?

Despite the millions of people who live and thrive with disabilities every single day, we still tend to skirt the subject. The common definition of the word disabled is “persons who are crippled, injured, or incapacitated.”

The Milwaukee Public Theatre begs to differ with this definition, and challenges us to instead envision talented men and women whose creativity and artistry has no crutches or bounds with “Tap the Potential.” This is the third year for the program, which spans the month of October (coinciding with Disability Awareness Month) and encourages artists with disabilities to showcase their talents across all forms of the arts.

Tap the Potential is a perfect fit for the Milwaukee Public Theatre—a synthesis of a social service agency and theatre. The company was established by artists who grew up during the socially-conscious 1960s, and most of their work has a strong activist message. Issues include history, health, the economics and politics of food, illiteracy, homelessness, and other contemporary themes.

The unique thing about the group is that it has no venue. Performers travel across Milwaukee—touring  parks, libraries, and other public places. They also offer traveling workshops for schools and other local organizations. As artistic director Barbara Leigh explains, “We’ve wanted to get to places where people gather, but also where they’ll listen.”

Part of MPT’s “Moving Art Exhibit”

Leigh has been with the group from the beginning. She is small in stature, but giant in her ability to bring people together, with her dynamic yet warm personality. Leigh herself is a performer with MPT—ranging from actress, to poet, to musician, to mime. She is also partially paralyzed, and walks with the aid of two canes.

“I think it’s really important to get out there and say, you know, this is the way it is—these are some of the things I can’t do, these are some of the things I can do, and what I can’t do people help me with, and I just go on,” she says matter-of-factly.

Leigh was severely injured during a crash in 1987 . The van she was riding in hit a patch of ice and went over an embankment while traveling after a winter performance. She remembers bits and pieces of the accident. “They had to cut the van open to get at me. I remember excruciating pain. I remember my legs moving, and then they stopped moving — that was really terrifying.”

She has turned that experience into a one-woman play called Survival Revival Revue, which explores the healing process. She will be performing excerpts from the show at Marquette University Nursing School on Wednesday, October 20, as part of the lineup for Tap the Potential.

Surprisingly, Leigh says the show is very funny.“I thought when I was in the hospital—I found myself laughing at these really weird things that go on there. So as I noticed funny things I sort of stored them. I couldn’t write, I couldn’t really focus in that way, but a lot of things really stayed with me.”

Mixed media at the Moving Art Exhibit

Now, Leigh helps others who are disabled reach out and share their stories. She points out, “A way to fight stereotypes of disabilities is by getting artists with disabilities out into the community.”

The artists range from moderately disabled to those who are severely challenged—both mentally and physically. They include a paralyzed painter who uses nothing but his mouth to hold a brush, a stroke victim who commands the room with her stories, and a bi-polar woman who uses poetry to cope with her condition.

While the creative process is cathartic for the artists, Leigh also wants to challenge the audience and have them come away with something.

“I think a lot of people don’t realize how much they have, how many abilities they have, and they complain about a lot of stuff, and don’t really challenge themselves to reach their potential,” she says.

Much of Tap The Potential is performance-based, but the Moving Art Exhibit, located at the Mitchell International Airport Concourse E, features oil paintings, drawings and mixed media pieces — all created by artists who face a variety of mental and physical challenges.

The airport is usually a place of stress and frustration. However, this exhibit gives people a chance to slow down for a few minutes and truly appreciate their ability to run through the airport on two healthy legs in order to catch a flight. It includes a Post-It section, with comments from passersby like “Great variety—thanks for brightening my waiting time,”and “Wow, I wish I could do that!”

But that’s exactly it—we all CAN do it. These artists prove anything is possible with perseverance. Leigh hopes Tap The Potential inspires people to try something new, even if it is scary.

“We believe that art is everyone, and everyone deserves to have access to it.”

All Tap The Potential performances are free, and several remain this month, including the Moving Art Exhibit, which is on view until October 22. You can find a schedule of events here.

Categories: A/C Feature 2, Art, Theater

0 thoughts on “Acting, drawing, thriving: A new perspective on disability”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Great story! Glad to read about people taking on challenges head on and not letting their disablility limit their potential!!

  2. Anonymous says:

    Excellent article about an important program. Barbara Leigh and Milwaukee Public Theatre have been instrumental in helping people to tap their potential for many years now. And nothing serves as better inspiration than example. Do as I say–and as I do.

  3. Anonymous says:


    Enjoyed the article very much. You are so right when you state, “anything is possible with perseverence.” As a disabled individual, I find life at times to be a struggle, but perseverence brings on so many rewards.

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