Dreamers Theater cast members rehearse for The Cat in the Hat (from left): Hannah Filer, Frankie Cerniglia, Ana Clemmonts, Emily Winebrenner and Ross Lipstock. In the background are Eric Tepper (from left), Jennifer Driscoll and Meredith Oubre. Photo by Isaac Harrell
Joan Babich Lipstock doesn't fear breast cancer, although it returned a second time this summer.
"I fear not knowing what will happen to Ross later in life," she says quietly of her son. As she spoke, Ross Lipstock, a 30-year-old with high-functioning autism, was rehearsing for a performance of The Cat in the Hat , set for June 23 at the Weinstein JCC.
A handsome man with auburn hair and freckles, Ross is exuberant about Dreamers Theater, a group his mother and two other women launched 10 years ago for young adults with a variety of disabilities. Joan Lipstock now directs the group alone. She was honored by the Richmond YWCA last year for her involvement and for establishing Richmond House, a home for disabled youths.
"I can't really explain it," says Ross, who will play the Cat character in this show. "It's like WOW! So many people go up to me after the plays and say, ‘You're amazing. Can I have your autograph?' I think the value is even though I have a disability, I can still do things, still function. It's a great opportunity to make friends. I love acting, singing."
Emily Winebrenner, a bubbly 29-year-old with Asperger's syndrome, giggles and talks about her four-year association with Dreamers. "Mrs. Lipstock has been great. We've made lasting friendships and learned how we [should] interact with each other." In this production, she plays Thing One. Although Winebrenner lives independently, she has transportation struggles. "A lot of us can't drive. We have to rely on the CARE van. Many times they don't show up at the right time or the right place or arrive a day or two earlier than the scheduled trip. It drives you crazy when it happens." Lipstock understands. "Once I was on a gurney in the ER, dealing with a suspected blood clot in my lung, and Ross called with CARE van problems. He can't express what's wrong. I'm trying to figure it out. It gets crazy sometimes." Other times, she basks in the group's camaraderie. "There are problems, personality issues, but they comfort and care for each another. This is their safe place, where they shine. How often can they shine?" To help performers who have anxiety disorders feel more comfortable in front of an audience, Lipstock makes adjustments such as using costumes that cover their faces. "They also lack muscle tone," she says. "They haven't played competitive sports because they weren't accepted in those groups. I wanted them to get more in shape." To help with that, she started organizing a weekend retreat each summer. "I wanted them to have the experience of sleeping in a cabin, watching bonfires, hiking, swimming, fishing and boating." Dreamers Theater includes mainly those with Asperger's syndrome. Some have anxiety disorders, and several have other conditions like Williams, Sotos or Down syndromes. One of the 16 current participants has spina bifida and uses a wheelchair. Actors without disabilities play supporting roles, but not main parts. Undertaking theater is a long stretch for some of these folks. "We're trying to show a positive view of adults with differences, show their challenges and their uniqueness," Lipstock says. "Opportunities for them are meager. They're older and somewhat capable, but only if they have assistance. Getting assistance is extremely difficult. They need better funding, transportation, housing and counselors to help them navigate society. "Some are very naive," she continues. "As a parent, you're terrified for their future. They're scared, too. I have two other sons, but it's not the same with them. Your typical child will have life experiences. Some individuals in our group don't look different, but they are different, are vulnerable to bullying, being taken advantage of. Parents are getting older. They are what's keeping our children, some of whom are 40, from being homeless and starving, on the streets. It breaks your heart." Finances are problematic, too, although parents help. There are costs for script rights and prop construction, sound and lighting, and costumes, forcing Lipstock to beg and borrow as she can. "Christian Youth Theater has helped; however, our members are bigger than most people in youth theater, so that's a problem." Despite those challenges, Dreamers Theater pitches in for others. The group plans to participate in the SPARC/Live Arts event in December, as it did last year. Dreamers also sang in the ReelAbilities film festival in April, showcasing films about people with various disabilities. Its members have taken part in fundraising for a school in Africa, for the Down Syndrome Association of Greater Richmond and for Positive Vibe Café, which hires and trains people with disabilities. Lipstock co-wrote and produced a documentary for WCVE with Paul Roberts, covering issues that individuals with disabilities universally face. The Richmond PBS affiliate airs it annually, with 134 stations picking it up nationwide. Tickets for the June 23 performance are $10, including a dessert buffet and the opportunity to mingle with the actors. The Cat in the Hat starts at 4 p.m., and a talk-back session, in which actors answer questions from the audience, follows the performance. Eric Tepper, 28, is enthusiastic about performing, despite a problem with stuttering. "I've been part of Dreamers five years," he says. "All the plays we do, we have fun. I feel good. I'm around friends, like Ross. He's the first person I met and one of the main reasons I keep coming back. The first play I did was Jungle Book. I played two parts and a voiceover." Lipstock notes that some performers have overlapping issues. "In the end, all the parents just want their kids to be safe and happy," she says. "The actors surprise their families, especially their siblings, showing what they can do rather than what they can't do. There are tears. It's pretty amazing." Ross adds, "It's so people will know that we're just like everyone else — so they don't look at people with special needs as throwaways." ©Nancy Wright Beasley 2013. All rights reserved.