On Main Street in March (2019), the theater marquee announced The Wizard of Oz Unplugged by the ACAP Playmakers. Unplugged? Some bizarre techno-version of Oz?
I was intrigued. That weekend I attended the show. In a packed auditorium, I sat next to a dad whose adult son had been thriving in ACAP for years. I’d been to numerous productions at Waukesha Civic Theater the past decade, but none compared to this: over half of the forty-three member cast was disabled.
On stage, instead of the typical Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion, Dorothy and her companions are labeled Loser, Fool, Cripple, and Misfit. The Scarecrow suffers from memory loss, the Tin Man uses a wheelchair, and Leona has anxiety.
While confronting obstacles on the way, above all, their quest is for acceptance and freedom from bullying.
All photos below are courtesy of Mark Cage.
The Adaptive Community Approach Program (ACAP) is a 9:00am – 3:00pm weekday program with 94 members. Mark Cage, the scriptwriter, has worked there for thirty of ACAP’s thirty-seven years in Waukesha, Wisconsin.
“We at ACAP are excited to tell others in the community about our work.
We continue to be amazed at all the fascinating people we meet.
We serve people with various disabilities.
Connecting them to people in the general community
is our mission.” –Mark Cage
How did the ACAP Playmakers theater group get started?
Mark: I partnered with a co-worker to bring ACAP members to area schools to talk about their experiences of having or incurring a disability. I wanted the presentations to be more of a creative presentation rather than a lecture, including more of our members. I turned it into a series of vignettes with a talkback session afterwards.
After doing that for four years, other co-workers suggested we bring it to the Waukesha Civic Theatre where we could make it a full-length theatre production. We’ve been doing so for thirteen years—first, once a year, then twice a year, now three times a year.
Through our partnership with Waukesha Civic Theatre, we first performed The Wizard of Oz Unplugged in 2007.
(NOTE: Waukesha Civic Theater is a wonderful little community theater in the heart of Waukesha. They put on a variety of plays, and have a strong educational outreach component as well. My daughter Audrey learned much about theater there in her middle school years, which later led to great experiences in high school and community theater.)
But performing plays is not all they do at ACAP . . .
What is your specific role at ACAP as a “community guide,” as mentioned on the website?
Mark: I started out driving the van that picked participants up in the morning and brought them home afterwards. I took people to the Y for workouts and swimming, did recreation programs, facilitated enrichment classes, got people involved in community activities like volunteering at the Retzer Nature Center and the Waukesha County Museum, and took part in various disability rights advocacy projects.
Our community explorations eventually led us to a school outreach program and then to the Waukesha Civic Theatre.
In the beginning, we had three staff members doing everything. Today we have 17 staff members, 15 of whom work directly with the ACAP members. All 15 are classified as community guides because we wish to keep titles generic and general.
Our main responsibility is to get the people we serve
involved in meaningful activities,
including adaptive recreation, community service,
and volunteering, arts enrichment, health and fitness opportunities,
and educational/enrichment classes.
We try to do as much as possible in the community.
Currently I teach woodworking, film, music, and theatre expression classes, and do other various things. Getting people connected to their community is always the aim.
Is ACAP’s philosophy and model based on others around the country?
Mark: The philosophical foundation is based on pioneers of the disability rights movement. But we feel that what we do and how we do it is unique.
What led to your own interest in working at ACAP?
Mark: I had worked with folks with disabilities prior. Carol Ann Kay, the founder and director of ACAP, was an inspirational leader who encouraged non-stop creativity, so it was a great fit for me.
She was an avid believer in exploring the community and culture around us for ways to include people with disabilities.
For example, she read in the local paper that their was a graffiti problem in Waukesha so she came into work and said “Let’s figure out a way we can get people involved in solving that problem.”
Thus, she created the “Graffiti Effacers,” a group of ACAP members who went around Waukesha on leads from the police department to find and paint over vandalized properties. This program ran for nearly 20 years.
How has working at ACAP been a great fit for you?
Mark: Carol Ann Kay encouraged her staff workers to explore areas of their own interest and develop community partnerships to bring those interests to our members and to the community as a whole. For me it was in exploring writing and theatre, resulting in the ACAP Playmakers.
Another way it was a good fit for me was my opportunity to make a connection with the Retzer Nature Center, which led to consistent volunteering and learning for our members. We also helped consult on the development and implementation of the Center’s accessible hiking trail.
I also developed a partnership with the County Historical Museum where we created a video about historic sites around the County and volunteered at the museum. In the process, I’ve met many wonderful, interesting people from right here in Waukesha!
Back to theater . . . What are some of the other shows you’ve done with the ACAP PlayMakers?
Mark: When writing a script, I use a common folktale or legend as a springboard. We’ve performed:
- The Emperor’s New Tuxedo
- Pirates of Pizzazz
- Greece Lightning
- Snow White & the Magnificent Seven
- Cinderella’s Fella
- Darn Yankees
- Tempest Island
- Legend of William Tell
- Hero of Holland
- Tortoise & the Hare–The Rematch
- Show of Shows
- Oh Henry: A Double Feature
How do you come up with your script ideas and adaptations, particularly The Wizard of Oz Unplugged?
Mark: That is a bit of a mystery. The ideas seem to come when I’m talking to an ACAP member or shaving in the morning.
The Wizard of Oz Unplugged was my way of explaining the concept
that no one wants to have a disability,
but the presence of one does not diminish
the person’s innate human dignity and value:
if you exist, you’re in the game
and the object is to find out your purpose and meaning.
Each production is intended for ACAP members
to be involved in the acting and or backstage/tech stuff.
The cast is usually 60% ACAP members and 40% volunteers
and community actors who believe in our work.
The script gets changed every time we do the show because I have to tailor it to the cast we have for that production. We tailor the writing around the performers’ abilities.
I write the scripts but offer our members the opportunity to contribute input on the script development. My co-worker, Patty Chones directs.
The ACAP Playmakers just had another show, “The Emperor’s New Tuxedo,” on October 3-6, 2019 at the Waukesha Civic Theatre. It’s a musical parody of the Emperor’s New Clothes and King Midas’ Golden Touch.
Also, this past July (2019), at Waukesha Civic Theatre, we presented our own Film Fest of short films we created together. It was titled, “The ACAP Double Feature,” which contained a “Flintstones” episode and an aviation comedy, “Higher & Higher,” acted out by our ACAP members.
ME: I attended The Emperor’s New Clothes on October 3 and thoroughly enjoyed it. Emperor Maximilian and Empress Isabel are in the thick of a fashion war with King Midas. When the Court Jester remarks on her envy, Isabel banishes him.
The troubadour laments, “Where would the emperor be without envy? Envy is the string by which this empire dangles.” She and her dancing troupe bridge several scenes with her astute observations about folks who merely follow the crowd.
Two tailors (AKA swindlers; one of them is Mark Cage) show up to take advantage of the Empress’s envy and resources, by designing new outfits in preparation for the Spring Festival.
Meanwhile, after being granted one wish, King Midas wants everything he touches to turn purple—the epitome of royal fashion. But he has a change of heart after his daughter turns purple, too.
When the Emperor and Empress parade in their newest outfits, Isabel declares the new fashion trend. Folks cover up their horror in compliments until one lady finally calls it what it is: newspapers and duct tape. The Jester and ambassador Lily encourage everybody to look within, to follow their hearts, to relish variety and different flavors of opinions.
Adding to the charm and humor, lyrics of contemporary songs are adapted to fit the story, from “Hey Dude” (“Hey Jude”) to “Who’s the Greatest One?” (“Master of the House” from Les Miserables) to “Purple Stain” (“Purple Rain”), and many others.
Back to The Wizard of Oz Unplugged . . .
Besides the clever story line, Mark integrated contemporary songs with adapted lyrics, perhaps most appreciated by baby boomers. For example, when the bullies (AKA Witch’s Apprentices) harass Dorothy, they sing “Schooled Out,” a version of Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out For Summer” (1972).
The first time the Flying Monkees enter, they saunter down the aisles lip synching, “Here we come, walking down the street . . . Hey hey, we’re the Monkees . . .” (1966). Thus the double-e spelling.
In the Haunted Forest, the Trees sing “Break Her Pride” (about the Witch) to the tune of Matthew Wilder’s “Break My Stride” (1983).
“Ain’t nothin’ gonna break-a my pride
Nobody gonna slow me down, oh no
I got to keep controlling . . .”
Keeping to the rainbow theme of following a dream, Dorothy and her friends croon a wistful rendition of The Muppet Movie’s “Rainbow Connection” (1979), with altered lyrics, re-titled “Right Over the Rainbow.”
Later, outside the Witch’s castle, the two Henchmen admit they’re not happy, pointing out the witch’s labels on their chests: “Henchman.” They explain their predicament by singing “If I Only Had a Brain” with different lyrics.
“She labels every person
With every kind of cursin’
It’s a noose around my neck . . .”
Dorothy and crew sing to the tune of “If I Only Had a Brain.” Wheelchair-user Tin Man chimes in:
“I could do without the label
‘He’s crippled, he’s disabled’
I hear it now and then.
But I’d dance and I would reel
Maybe do a cartwheel
If I could only walk again.”
Most of the four companions’ journey is spent fighting labels that people slap on them, and gathering the courage to rip the labels off. The quest for acceptance and understanding drives them to find the Wicked Witch’s label-making machine and take it to the Wizard.
Of course, after their long quest, the Wizard has nothing to offer—except the truth. He tells Scarecrow that a productive person isn’t one who remembers his telephone number, but one who rises to the occasion when duty calls. The Wizard awards him a certificate of meritorious conduct.
To Tin Man, the Wizard says,
“You think standing on legs is what makes a person stand tall.
Yet, I know basketball players who dunk a ball through a hoop
that can’t measure up to the likes of you. . . .
All you need is an opportunity.”
The Wizard gives him the key to the city—
the key of accessibility.
It unlocks every barrier and removes every obstacle.
Then to Leona, for overcoming her anxiety, the Wizard grants the medal of courage.
The Wizard hands Dorothy a label that says Dorothy. “You wish to find a friend to call your own—someone to care about you, someone who can match the love and devotion that you have. . . .
“Have you not walked in the path of friendship?”
The Wizard gestures to the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Leona.
“Look around you.”
And when ACAP members look around, they see the same. For these gifts of truth, opportunity, respect, and friendship—offered without labels—is what the community guides of ACAP give daily to each person.
- The Baum Bugle — Though not online, my review of The Wizard of Oz Unplugged is in the Spring 2019 issue.
- ACAP website
- Waukesha Civic Theater
- ACAP Playmakers at WCT
- ACAP Playmakers on Facebook
- WCT on Facebook
Have you had (or know someone who has had) positive experiences with activities or events for the disabled?
I’d love to hear from you!