As the pandemic closed bars and theaters and so many of our jobs became remote, much of the world became virtual. And as cocktail hour moved onto zoom and museums digitized, social spaces also became increasing accessible.
For many members of the chronic illness community, these changes had been long awaited.
As reported in the Winnipeg Free Press
, Fiona Smith explained theatre had been her creative space where she found flow and creative inspiration. That is, before the onset of systemic mastocytosis made the endeavor impossible.
Now, at least, the global pandemic answered one of her prayers: virtual theatre. With a stage that doesn’t require entering the dangers of public spaces, Smith has finally been able to return to her duo, with the pair’s latest performance in Cripplepalooza. This is a virtual performance from artists, actors, and comedians living with disabilities.
is a rare disorder that causes patients to have too many mast cells, which normally protect the body, helping with healing. However, too many overwhelms the system, causing itchiness, lightheadedness, cramps, facial flushing, and the lose of consciousness. While there are treatments such as aspirin and antihistamines to help with symptoms, and chemotherapy for more aggressive cases, there is no cure.
Duo “Smith and vonWhatever”
In college, Smith found her inspiration attending the theatre program at the University of Manitoba, where she met a humor match and kindred spirit, Andrea von Wichert. They clicked, inspiring them to kick off their act as the comedy duo “Smith and vonWhatever.”
However, they had different plans post-grad, and left their act behind.
But when a wasp sting in 2007 developed into systemic mastocytosis, Smith’s life changed abruptly. Without warning, she had become allergic to the world, confined to a life where everything was a threat. Her newfound allergies to just about everything confined her routine, and took theatre off the table.
Smith had been searching for a route back into the preforming arts for sometime, but her disease had made social spaces nearly impossible. She said,
“In a split-second, my life went from being functional and able-bodied to … not.”
The Global Pandemic Brings Hope
So when the rest of the world joined her remotely in 2020, Smith couldn’t help but revel.
“I know everything‘s been bloody awful, but for me it’s been fantastic,” said Smith. “Because it’s opened doors and it’s opened people’s minds and it’s opened people’s hearts.”
This May, the Cripplepalooza show went live online, showcasing acts from disabled artists with limited access to traditional theatre spaces, at times making light of harder parts of extreme health-care. The cabaret includes performances from the deaf mime troupe 100 Decibels, contemporary dance, and local comedians.
Smith and Von Wichert decided to bring ‘Smith and VonWhatever’ back to life. They preformed two of their comedy acts, as well as an ode to the professionals the performers know far too well.
“It’s kind of a country-ish song about the conversation I had with my doctor every three months about medication,” said Smith. “It’s a very tongue-in-cheek look at the very serious conversations that we have when you’re dealing with very serious medication.”
The Sick + Twisted Theatre
The production is hosted by the theatre Sick + Twisted, which recognized the underrepresentation of the disabled community in theatre. However, they also recognize the enormous bravery and creativity that accompanies living with a disability.
“Traditional theatre-making in general is a very ableist world,” von Wichert says. “Because Sick + Twisted theatre is so radical in its approach to art-making, Deb Patterson has created a space where, as she would put it, ‘the disruption of disability” is the driving and motivating catalyst.”
The Sick + Twisted theatre attempts to use their performances to explore the truthful experiences of living with a disability, and changing the role of the body in performance. By putting the community with disabilities back on the stage to share the real challenges with some humor and fun, they invite the world to not shy away from the sticky and serious reality lived by people with disabilities, but instead make it something we can talk and laugh about.
While previously the theatre world hadn’t considered a space that wasn’t live, now, these artists are showing us what performances from artists who can’t use traditional spaces can look like.
For Smith, using a little creativity to share her truth was an exciting challenge. “I’m always trying to make magic out of mayhem,” she said.