Following the pre-pandemic success of productions like Rare and Down Syndrome by the Dozen, a new play is set to take to the stage at The Box in H’art Centre, featuring a team of neurodiverse actors, as well as some familiar figures within Kingston’s performing arts community.
Kathryn MacKay, a prominent member of Kingston’s professional theatre scene, is one of the creative forces behind PeerLess Productions, a new company featuring performers with Down Syndrome and other neurodiversities. The collective, born out of MacKay’s work with H’art Studios, aims to provide artistic role models for adults with intellectual disabilities.
“I had worked with H’art for a number of years,” said MacKay, “and I just saw that there was really a lot of untapped talent, and there weren’t any mentors. None of them thought [they] could have a career in the arts.” So, she formed PeerLess Productions, a company which seeks to create professional opportunities for neurodiverse artists.
For PeerLess’ first production, the director teamed up with several artists she had worked with previously, including Nathan Sikkema, Ashaya Garrett, and Jacob Ballantyne, to produce an all-new collective-creation show called We’re All In Jeopardy.
“We’re All In Jeopardy mixes live action, green screen technology, film, and animation to tell the story of a fictional group of Kingston celebrities who compete on a rigged game show fundraiser,” according to a press release about the play.
The play features a number of different artists, including cast members from previous H’art Studios shows like Rare and Down Syndrome by the Dozen, such as Meaghan Granger, Natasha Dawe, and Jeff McGlinton. Audiences may also recognize some of the other performers, with local artists David Archibald and Greg Wanless taking part in the production.
Archibald, a well-known Kingston entertainer, also helped write the music for the performance, carrying on his work from previous H’art Studios productions. In We’re All In Jeopardy, the performer also acts as part of the rap duo the Dawg Dawgs, alongside Natasha Dawe. Archibald said audiences should “expect the unexpected.”
The performers who’ve worked with MacKay to create We’re All In Jeopardy said the process was a fun and rewarding experience. “It was awesome, it was like magic!” said Ashaya Garrett, who plays Hope, a magical trickster.
Many of the characters in the show are based on the actors’ own interests and experiences. “My character is supposed to be obsessed with Home Alone, like me!” said Nathan Sikkema. However, the actor also noted some differences between himself and his character, Sunny Marv: “He’s also a cheater, which is not me at all.” Sunny Marv is a millionaire and one of the contestants competing on the rigged game show.
The play also allows Sikkema to show off some of his comedic abilities, something the actor said makes him “feel happy.” He even tries to channel his favourite character, Mr. Bean, in some of his work.
“I grew up watching Mr. Bean and I love Mr. Bean, I love his work,” added Sikkema. The play is also based on another one of Sikkema’s favourite TV shows, Jeopardy!, which the actor watches “every day.”
As part of the creative process, the artists have had the opportunity to work with a number of different media, including green screen technologies, music, animation, humour, and magic. “I play Fuller McAllister [aka Jacob], and they animated me as Jacob,” said performer Jacob Ballantyne, of the show’s use of different technologies, such as animation.
While the play is filled with humour, music, and magic, there is also a message that the actors hope will resonate with all audiences. “Some of us actors in the show have Down Syndrome… I think people underestimate me for who I am [and] I just want to be heard,” said Sikkema.
Lin Bennet, who plays Pandora in the show and handles communications for PeerLess Productions, explained that the play aims to teach audiences about the dangers of making assumptions. “We’re surprised all the time. I think we all realize that we’ve had underestimations of people… All the different skills that the performers have, you don’t really expect, and [they’re] growing all the time.”
Through the longstanding presence of H’art Studios, and now PeerLess Productions, the actors have been able to form close bonds with their colleagues, as they have now worked alongside each other on a number of different projects, creating a community of like-minded performers.
In 2014, the actors were involved with Judith Thompson’s production Rare, after which they were inspired to create a new play. “When we did Rare, Jacob [Ballantyne] came up with the idea of a play called Down Syndrome by the Dozen based on Cheaper by the Dozen,” explained Sikkema.
Down Syndrome by the Dozen brought together many of the actors from Rare, with McKay once again leading the performance, this time working with the artists to craft an original collective creation. The notion of working as a collective is part of what inspired MacKay to form PeerLess Productions, a new independent company that aims to provide professional-level mentorship to artists with Down Syndrome and other intellectual disabilities.
“Right now, there are role models on television and film — but when I formed the company eight years ago, not really. So, I thought it would be nice to give them some professional opportunities,” she shared.
After first working on Rare, MacKay realized a different approach was needed to better include artists who are neurodiverse. “[Thompson] structured [Rare] in a way that is very conventional and very neurotypical. A lot of the leaps of logic and things [like that], it wasn’t natural for them; it was like trying to force a structure that they weren’t comfortable with.
“That’s why I thought the next play should come from them. Jacob [Ballantyne] came in with his drawings, and he had a synopsis of what he wanted to do… So, we got some seed money, and we spent a year with Jacob working and developing the piece.”
MacKay explained that her artists work in a non-linear and neurodivergent fashion, incorporating many techniques and storytelling elements in the production, providing audiences with something different from the conventional theatre model they might be used to. “If you try to follow it in a linear fashion, it makes no sense at all, but who cares? They just love it,” remarked the director.
“They have ownership of [their work]. You’re not trying to slot a square peg into a round hole and making assumptions. I think true accessibility [means that] it’s not enough to say, ‘Oh, come on over’; you have to say it in a language and a way that they feel comfortable [coming] over. Then you have to make a structure that is not your structure, [but] includes their structure.”
MacKay said she hopes the new company will soon become a year-round fixture in the community. “Now that we have a home, I’m hoping… we can get on a cycle of creation, and workshopping, and classes… My dream would be for some of the artists that I work with to hold their own classes because they’ve now got skills, and they can share them with their peers.”
Ultimately, the director encouraged audiences to come out and see for themselves all the hard work that has gone into creating this entertaining production, while also taking home some key messages.
“I think [people should attend] not just as a curiosity, but because it’s fun, it’s a great night of entertainment, it’s completely unexpected… And I think [the performers] have a really important message about [embracing] who they are… What [we] are left with at the end is hope, and there’s such a joy and belief that the world can be better… It reaffirms your belief in humanity.”
PeerLess Productions’ We’re All In Jeopardy opens on Friday, Jun. 17, 2022, at The Box, inside H’art Centre (237 Wellington Street). Performances are set for 7 p.m. on June 17, 18, and 22 to 25, and 2:30 p.m. on June 19 and 25. Tickets are $10 to $15 and are available through Eventbrite. Find out more about PeerLess Productions on their website.