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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.