With PUSH!, parasport athletes seize the spotlight in the arena — and in the theatre

PUSH!, a play weaving together real stories told by real athletes that brings their myriad of physical and personal struggles (and incredible triumphs) to light. Presented by Tangled Art + Disability and developed by Ping Chong + Company, PUSH! gives voice to their invigorating and inspiring tales in a theatrical way, accompanied by a live percussive score.

Play comprises real, personal stories told by parasport athletes

The cast of PUSH!, a theatrical production depicting the history of paralympic competition, pictured here with Ping Chong and Sara Zatz of Ping Chong + Company, who developed and directed the show. (Rudy Ens)

If you've watched movies about athletes from Rocky to Bend It Like Beckham, you know that the trajectory to victory is often laden with obstacles: injury, family life, money, stereotypes. But Hollywood rarely tells the stories of athletes whose difficulties include whether they can negotiate the entrance to the stadium.

At Panamania, the cultural festival of the Pan Am/Parapan Am games in Toronto, one play aims to buck that trend. PUSH! weaves together real stories told by real athletes, ones that bring their myriad of physical and personal struggles — and incredible triumphs — to light. Presented by Tangled Art + Disability and developed by Ping Chong + Company, PUSH! gives voice to their invigorating and inspiring tales in a theatrical way, accompanied by a live percussionist. And along the way, developing PUSH!  has in many cases meant figuring out what those stories mean to the athletes telling them.

They're in control of the story.- Tangled Art + Disability artistic director Eliza Chandler

Some of the tales reveal how parasport athletes are treated by the non-parasport community. Others talk about the lack of funding. Telling these stories, of course, is a cathartic experience. Tangled's Artistic Director Eliza Chandler emphasizes the emotional turmoil created for some of the athlete/actors when they have to relive difficult episodes from their past. But that doesn't mean simply letting their every emotion run free. Far from wallowing in tragedy, these characters celebrate resilience.

Chandler remarks on the dignity she's witnessed on display during the performance: "The actors are certainly vulnerable and honest and generous, but they don't reveal themselves at their most vulnerable… it gives them strength. They're in control of the story."

If PUSH! had been made 20 years ago rather than today, it would be a very different show, in large part because of the rise of adaptive technology. In her multiple decades of competition, cast member Martha Sandoval-Gustafson has seen incredible changes in wheelchair design, development in prosthetics, and how both have allowed athletes from the disability community to live a better life in and out of sport. Another cast member, Victoria Nolan, is a rower with low vision who uses adaptive technology, and the way the competitive environment is set up, to perform at her best.

For some, just attending a play like PUSH! will bring a potent reminder that, even for the performers, getting into a theatrical venue can be a small feat on its own. Chandler points out that while our attitudes are changing, our structures, city planning, and transit have a lot to do to catch up. But she also says the conversation about parasports is changing quickly in a couple of hopeful ways — we have a greater understanding that "no two parasport athletes are the same, and it's everybody's responsibility to break down the barriers." 

PUSH! plays as part of Panamania at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 50 Tank House Lane, The Distillery District, Toronto to Aug. 14. 7:30pm. $30.


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