Guiding youth through tough, real life situations using various activities, events, and workshops is part of Urban Improv’s inspiring mission. From Monday, November 16 through Friday, November 20, Urban Improv provided a series of theatre workshops for fifth graders to help them understand and accept people with disabilities. The workshops took place at the Reggie Lewis Concerto in Boston, Massachusetts. Click here for more information!
Two time cancer survivor and touring actress, composer, singer, director, and producer Anita Hollander was a special guest speaker at these insightful workshops. Anita, a one legged performer, talks about her involvement and her background living her life with a disability while Urban Improv Managing Director Cissa Campion discusses Urban Improv’s mission.
Examiner: Anita, please tell me how you got involved with Urban Improv’s five-day workshops.
Anita Hollander: Back in 1982, shortly after my amputation, I was living in Boston and worked with a theatre company called Next Move Unlimited. It was comprised of actors with and without disabilities dedicated to presenting the disability experience in a positive light. The original show, ‘You Can’t Turn Off the Stars,’ was a compilation of music, comedy and drama, and written by the company. It was my first collaboration with the wonderful Dewey family and composer Tom Megan, all of whom thankfully appreciated and recognized me as a composer as well as performer.
After that company was gone and when I had moved to NYC, my relationship with Urban Improv began, as we collaborated for a week on a unit that would enlighten and introduce young people to disability in a fun and educational way. I wrote the song ‘What Do You Do? What Do You Say?’ to break the ice with the students and we were off and running on what has been a 19-year annual pilgrimage to Boston and a love affair with this company!
Examiner: What do you hope students will learn from these workshops?
AH: My hope has been that students will come away from the workshop with a sense of confidence and comfort when encountering people with disabilities. A disability does not limit or reduce peoples’ talents and abilities. What makes each of us different is what makes us unique and a disability can be an asset. I hope to replace negative myths about disability with positive reality, and help to develop sensitivity when it comes to everyday things like priority seating on transit and how to assist people in a respectful way.
Examiner: What advice can you offer other performers with disabilities?
AH: Get Training! Go to Auditions! As National Chair of the SAG-AFTRA Performers with Disabilities (PWD) Committee, I work for inclusion, authenticity, access and visibility in film, TV, theatre, recording, broadcasting and all other media. What I constantly remind PWDs is that we cannot be cast if we are not in the room, so we need to put ourselves out there and be ready to be the best at any audition by training and working all we can. On the other side, I also work with network executives, producers, directors, writers, casting directors, agents and general managers to promote more auditions for PWDs for all roles, not just disabled ones.
Examiner: What has been your most challenging role in your career?
AH: Most of my roles have been challenging because I love a challenge. I went back on stage four weeks after my amputation here in Boston, opening in ‘Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris.’ Playing Grizabella in the musical ‘Cats’ as a 3-legged cat is the challenge I enjoyed the most. I did the show entirely on one leg without crutches or assistive devices, singing the famous song ‘Memory,’ acting, dancing, crawling, rolling, sliding and climbing all over the set. I never had a better time on stage! At one performance I actually broke a toe, taped it up and continued performing. Such was my love of this experience. No pain could keep me off that stage which is basically the story of my life.
I’d also like to add my upcoming challenge will be playing three roles in the play ‘The Matchmaker’ at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. One role will have two legs, one will have one, and one will be in a wheelchair and play piano! My disability makes me uniquely versatile in a way few other performers can be and I will exploit that to the best of my ability!
Examiner: Hope your new roles are as rewarding as you hope they will be. Cissa, Urban Improv provides educational workshops guiding youth on how to best deal with tough, real life situations such as racism, violence, and bullying. Please tell me more about the workshops.
Cissa Campion: Urban Improv’s highly effective, interactive drama programs help young people explore challenging situations in their lives. We work with kids from 4th grade through high school. Whether it is peer pressure, cyber bullying, racism, homophobia, or violence, students role-play scenarios based on their own choices and experience the consequences of their actions in a safe environment.
Our atmosphere of openness and respect allows students to express themselves, leading to stronger self-esteem and improved conflict resolution, cooperation, and leadership skills. Urban Improv helps students grapple with issues they face every day and equips them with the skills they need to become leaders who communicate our messages of nonviolence, tolerance, and respect. We call it “A Rehearsal for Life.”
For over 20 years, Urban Improv has presented to over 65,000 students at more than 120 schools and community groups throughout Boston, New England, and beyond. It has been able to provide thousands of free workshops to Boston schools since its inception in 1992.
Urban Improv is located at 670 Centre Street in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. Click here for more information on Urban Improv, its upcoming events, and how to support this dynamic organization.