Shattering barriers between disabled and non-disabled

Forest Park resident performs in 'Divercity,' running July 31 to Aug. 2

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By Maria Maxham

In 2006, Melissa Fuller woke up one day with blurry vision. It didn't get better, and she went to the doctor. After visits and tests, she was told she was losing her sight, and there was nothing that could be done about it.

At the time, she was a real estate appraiser. And over the next 11 years, she learned to live with her vision impairment while at the same time forming her own real estate development company.

Now, Fuller, a Forest Park resident, shares her story in Divercity, a virtual show by six solo performers, each with a disability, who created their pieces through workshops with Tekki Lomnicki, cofounder and artistic director of Tellin' Tales Theater.

In Fuller's performance, she has created a fictional character she's talking to. His name is Tony, and he wants to get back into business after experiencing vision loss. She shares with him her own experiences, using music and photos to tell her story.

Lomnicki, who filmed the performance, said, "Melissa really brought it to life. I felt like I was Tony."

Divercity is usually a live performance and was scheduled for June. But this year's performance, because of COVID-19, was recorded and will be presented online from July 31 to August 2, with real-time question and answer sessions after each show.

"Though Tellin' Tales has had to pivot in response to the pandemic, the virtual platform actually works well for performers with disabilities due to transportation and accessibility issues. This show proves that though we aren't able to be together in person, we can stay connected through our stories. I am confident that whether or not viewers have a disability, that they will connect to these stories," said Lomnicki.

Fuller, who participated in the show in 2018, said performing previously in front of a live audience was transformative because she was allowed to tell people her story and, in turn, experience their reaction.

"I could feel the emotion of the audience," said Fuller. Although that won't be the case without a live audience for this year's performance, Fuller said there were some advantages to recording the show instead of performing live. For one, it was easier, because she didn't have to worry about markings on the stage or being on queue. Still, she tried to interact with the camera as much as possible.

Fuller credits Lomnicki for helping her and the other performers share their stories.

"Tekki is brilliant," said Fuller. "She makes each performer and performance come alive." In 2018, said Fuller, one performer had stage fright, but Lomnicki was able to inspire him, bringing out his confidence and allowing him to shine.

And, said Fuller, the work of condensing 10 to 15 years of your life into an eight-minute script is difficult, something Lomnicki helps with from the beginning.

During six weeks of workshops leading up to the performance, Lomnicki works with each performer to develop his or her story. In fact, the tagline of Tellin' Tales Theater is "Everybody Has a Story." The mission? "To shatter barriers between the disabled and non-disabled worlds through the transformative power of personal story."

"We work on how to craft a good story for a solo performance," said Lomnicki. "We look at setting. Are you having coffee? Are you at a bar? We decide who the audience is. And like any good story, there has to be a beginning, middle and an end. A good resolution. A great last line."

And it's through telling personal stories, said Lomnicki, that a connection is forged between people.

"When we tell our stories, we connect to people in ways we normally wouldn't connect," Lomnicki said. She said she's shared stories before about the death of a parent or about a significant breakup, stories many people can relate to. This, she said, helps those without disabilities realize – and actually feel – that a disability doesn't mean a person is essentially different.

"People think of us as people with disabilities, with different bodies or even different minds," said Lomnicki. "Talking about shared experiences bridges the gap. And it's healing to tell your story."

Divercity runs from July 31 to August 2 on Vimeo and is hosted by 16th Street Theater. All of the performers are writers, actors and advocates with disabilities, including spinal injury, mental illness, deafness, blindness, cerebral palsy and muscular atrophy. Tickets are available at https://16thstreettheater.org. Ticket holders will be emailed a link to watch the video one-hour before the show and a separate link for a Zoom talk back after each performance. Closed captioning will be available.

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