Over the holidays, Torrance and I gifted dinner theatre tickets to our mother and her boyfriend to the final show of Mistletoe Magic at Famous PEOPLE Players. We were excited to visit this theatre as I’ve read about the amazing work it’s done for people with disabilities and have seen behind the scene snippets on Rick Mercer Report. The evening we went was a chilly one. When Wheeltrans dropped us off, there was still 30 minutes before the doors opened. I decided to see if anyone was there to let us in, as Torrance’s hands tend to freeze up and his ability to control his wheelchair stops. I found that the administration office was still open. As I walked in, I passed by an elderly lady, who we later found out was Mary, the founders 100-year-old mom (more on her later!) eating pizza. Mary directed us to another lady in the office to see if we could have the doors opened for Torrance. She arranged to have a young boy, the founders grandson, to open the doors for us.
The moment we walked in, it was quite magical with huge puppets in the coat check and waiting area and further in was a “Wall of Fame” with photos of the Famous PEOPLE Players journey with everyone that they have met, worked with and supported by, in the 41 years they’ve been in business. People such as Liberace and Tom Cruise was adorned on this truly famous wall. As the doors opened sharply at 6:30 PM, we were seated at a table by the bar and kitchen. And it was happenstance that as people started coming in, Diane Dupuy, the founder of Famous PEOPLE Players walked by our table to talk to a bartender. As she walked past again I asked if we can chat later after the show, she said yes without hesitation.
The dinner portion wasn’t the highlight, our family ordered vegetarian and Diane’s response to us was “oh boy”, and it wasn’t anything to rave about. The meat dishes that other tables were served looked much more pleasing and I would highly recommend ordering those dishes until the vegetarian dishes are improved upon. The highlight of dinner is meeting Mary Gioberti Thorton, Diane’s mother, who has been the visual director, creating all the puppets and props since their inception. She came to our table to chat, and since it was her 100th birthday I asked what was her favourite drink, she said “chocolate martini”. Her funniest response came later when I asked if she had finished her martini, she said: “oh yes, I drank it really quick because if you down it fast it’s like having two drinks”. What a woman!
From Diane’s book, Daring to Dream: The Story of the Famous PEOPLE Players, Mary played an influencing role, of what later became Famous PEOPLE Players. As Mary realized her daughter’s strength in creativity she made Diane a puppet theatre when Diane was growing up and used the theatre to make money at venues such as the CNE over the summer. Mary’s hard work and creativity are a major force behind all the beautiful props and puppets of the company, even when we were chatting, she said: “When I started 41 years ago, I knew nothing about black light paints or prop making”. They have come very far since.
As we entered the theatre, we were shown to the wheelchair accessible seats right in front of the stage and as Diane kicked off the show, she had all the children sit in front of the stage. It was a very intimate setting, definitely very family friendly. The show was a hoot! Lots of classic and modern pop and rock music, lots of cultural icons that bring good memories and the puppets and props that represented those icons and movements to the music was so much fun to watch! I won’t spoil it, but I was most impressed by the crew involved and at the end of the show, they demonstrated how the life-sized puppets were operated.
The most amazing part of Famous PEOPLE Players, are the “players” themselves and how much Diane believes in each person. It wasn’t an easy road of course, as when the company was founded Diane’s goal was to run a professional theatre company, not a charity, that hires and trains people with disabilities. This came with its ups and downs, and in the book, she talks about the challenges she faced with the practitioners that worked in the field of disabilities, the families of the young adults, the general public’s perceptions and also with the young adults themselves in the 70s and 80s.
Diane believes that as a professional theatre company, everyone is responsible for the quality of their performance, if they get a bad review, the onus is on themselves to improve regardless of their disability. For many years, their focus was just on performances, and when she was concerned for the “players” after their performing career, she thought culinary arts is equally creative and would be practical for the “players” that could be applicable outside of Famous PEOPLE Players which transformed them into a dinner theatre company. They offer individuals with disabilities an opportunity through their Exceptional Achievement Program that provides a year-long training in theatre and culinary arts.
When asked, what would be the one thing she would ask all of us as readers to act on, she said,
To be integrated like anybody else, and not to feel sorry for yourself. But [instead], how do you make the best of yourself. I mean that’s very important. You want to turn people on, you don’t want to turn them off. You don’t want people to say, “you know what, you’re playing on your disability”. People don’t respect that and you are segregating yourself [by] putting yourself back on the school bus.
Diane is multi-talented having written severals books which you can find here. Her latest book is called Cocktails at the Chemo Lounge about her journey with cancer. The current show at Famous PEOPLE Players is Rock and Roll with Great Balls of Fire which runs from Jan 15 to May 31, 2016.