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Actors with Down Syndrome PuSh Boundaries with King Arthur’s Night

By Glen Hoos You knew this wasn't going to be a typical night at the theatre when the lead actor interrupted his lines to give a shout out his mom from the smoky stage, and she enthusiastically called back in response from the audience. Indeed, there’s nothing typical at all about King Arthur's Night, a radically inclusive play in which generous ad-libbing and spontaneous improvisation are par for the course – and key to its substantial charm. The (very!) creative adaptation of the King Arthur legend, which had its Vancouver debut Wednesday evening as part of the PuSh Festival, is the product of a collaboration between Vancouver's NeWorld Theatre and the Down Syndrome Research Foundation, and springs from the fertile imagination of writer and star Niall McNeil and his co-creator Marcus Youssef. McNeil, who has Down syndrome, first worked with Youssef on Peter Panties, an adaptation of Peter Pan which was presented at the 2011 PuSh Festival. In the audience was then-DSRF Executive Director Dawn McKenna, who expressed a desire to partner together in the future. "Niall and I were commissioned by Luminato to write a King Arthur adaptation," recalls Youssef – a project that would ultimately be five years in the making, fueled by McNeil's extensive research into the legend. "Our Director Jamie Long, our Musical Director Veda Hille, and Niall and I started teaching classes at the Down Syndrome Research Foundation, which is where we met Tiffany King (Guinevere), Andrew Gordon (The Saxon) and Matthew Tom-Wing (Magwitch). We all agreed they were the three we all wanted to be in our show." The DSRF students joined Niall in integrating seamlessly with the professional cast, which is bolstered on stage by a live band and 20-person choir. Together, they deliver a delightfully offbeat rendition of the Arthur tale featuring nods to local fixtures like Harrison Hot Springs, modern twists like the iPad that a lovestruck Lancelot gifts to Guinevere, and a fearsome goat army that… well, you just have to see it to get it. The play opened to a rapturous response from the standing room only crowd at UBC's Frederic Wood theatre, the first of five almost-sold-out performances. The cast was clearly thrilled. "We love it so much; it's so much fun!" gushes leading lady King. To Youssef and his colleagues, King Arthur's Night is so much more than just another play. In fact, he gets choked up as he reflects on what this project means to him. "I have learned more than I can say. Beginning with my collaboration with Niall on Peter Panties and then extending it to this bigger collaboration with these guys… honestly, it makes me a bit emotional to talk about it. It's been the deepest learning experience I've ever had. There is a very big difference between what we thought they would capable of when we started and what they are now doing in the show, which is not only a whole bunch of cool acting stuff, but also some really beautiful, present performance that all the professionals in the ensemble are learning tons from. I just would have said, 'There's no way.' My perspective of what it means to be a person in the world has radically changed." If McNeil has his way, King Arthur's Night is just the beginning. Later this spring, he's off to the Stratford Festival in Ontario, where he'll sit in on rehearsals of The Tempest at the invitation of the festival's Artistic Director, Anthony Cimolino. He's also currently working on two new adaptations: Beauty and the Beast, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. "Marcus isn’t able to do these with me, but there are other playwrites who can help me too," McNeil affirms confidently. True enough, Youssef admits. "Niall’s working on a bunch of stuff; I of course can’t be involved in every single thing he does." But that doesn’t mean he’s finished with inclusive art projects, or working alongside a partner with whom he shares a special, brotherly chemistry on stage. "We're very hopeful that in the fall we'll be able to start a once-a-week collaboratory ensemble including these guys, our professional actors, and maybe some new folks too, where we just make up new stuff, and maybe a show will come out of that," he says. And there may yet be more to come for King Arthur's Night, too: "Nothing's confirmed yet, but I'm optimistic there will be more presentations of this show in other places around North America." That's good news for the stars of the show, who are in no way ready to give up the spotlight. Asked whether he wants to continue acting, Gordon doesn't hesitate. "All the time! It's always super cool." King Arthur's Night will be performed daily through Feb. 4 as part of the PuSh Festival. Click here for tickets.
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The Down Syndrome Research Foundation is very proud to announce a new partnership with SVP Vancouver that will fuel the next step in our growth as an organization and our ability to empower young people with Down syndrome. In the first year of our 3-year partnership with SVP, SVP will invest $75,000 in DSRF for the creation of a stand-alone Director of Development position. For the past 7 years, we have had one person filling the joint role of Director of Development and Communications. SVP's generous investment will allow us to separate these functions into two full-time positions, radically increasing our effectiveness in both areas and laying the foundation for the fulfillment of our strategic objectives over the next four years. Effective March 1, we will welcome Jason Campbell to our team as our new Director of Development. Jason (pictured) is a career fund development professional with over 25 years of non-profit fundraising and management experience, all of it in the health and disability sectors. After graduating from Simon Fraser University with a BA in Economics, Jason served for 13 years in a leadership role with the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada (BC Division). He then served five years as Executive Director of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society of Canada, where he increased net revenue by 300% over a three-year period. As Director of Resource Development for the BC Centre for Ability Foundation, Jason oversaw an increase of over 110% in the organization’s direct mail appeal program. Most recently, Jason served as Director of Development and Interim CEO of BC Adaptive Snowsports, where he significantly increased the organization’s fund development revenues. Jason is also a partner in Ruby Group Fundraising and Event Management, through which he has consulted for a variety of local organizations. Jason lives in New Westminster with his wife, Ruby and their teenage daughter. Also on March 1, Glen Hoos, our current Director of Development and Communications, will become our first full-time Director of Communications. In his first seven years with DSRF, Glen oversaw a significant increase in DSRF's fund development revenues across all categories. He's now excited to turn his full-time attention to communications. Glen has a very personal passion for the work of DSRF, as one of his four children has Down syndrome and attends DSRF, while another has other developmental disabilities. “DSRF is at an exciting inflection point,” says SVP co-Lead Partner David Ferguson. “They have new high energy leadership, are expanding their fundraising capabilities and focus, and are committed to finding innovative new ways of delivering their programs. I think SVP is perfectly suited to provide leverage and impact as they enter this new stage.” “Being an SVP Investee is an amazing opportunity that allows us to achieve the important strategic goal of splitting our dual development and communications position much sooner than anticipated,” says DSRF CEO Wayne Leslie. “We also hope to increase the number of students and families we serve, improve affordability, and enhance our facility. We know our work with SVP is going to be hugely beneficial in many ways.” Please join us in thanking SVP for investing in children and youth with Down syndrome! The impact of their support will ripple for many years to come.
The Goodwyn Family Fund, held at the NWM Private Giving Foundation, has generously donated $5,000 in support of DSRF's programs and services for individuals with Down syndrome. We thank them for their very meaningful investment!
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Down Syndrome Research Foundation
1409 Sperling Avenue, Burnaby
British Columbia, Canada
V5B 4J8

Fax: +1 604 431 9248
Phone: +1 604 444 3773