A little theatre in Takapuna is giving people with disabilities a chance to shine

"Hello Richard, hello Jay," Janet Marks calls to her students as they tumble into the PHAB hall on a quiet Takapuna side street. It's the first day back for her drama class after the school holidays, so there are catch-ups on what everyone did on their break, and explanations of why the Herald is here to watch.

Christina, in the sunniest yellow T-shirt and the sunniest smile to match, responds with hoots and hugs. She prods her friend Erin to tell Ms Marks about singing into a microphone. Richard gets up to demonstrate his moonwalk. As she works her way around the group of 10 men and women, ranging in age from their 20s to 50s or so, Ms Marks is constantly drawing out the quiet ones, reassuring, admiring photos of new babies or new purchases with excited aunties.

The oddly named PHAB - Physically Disabled and Able Bodied - is a charity that creates a social world for people with disabilities, with weekly clubs, and a bunch of stuff that fits under "life skills". Ms Marks came on at the beginning of the year to run the drama classes in Takapuna and Manurewa.

"We were originally set up to fill a gap. If you have a learning disability, you leave school and you don't have a job, what can you do? Not very much, apparently," Ms Marks explains. "Our number one aim is for people to enjoy themselves. But people become more expressive, they become more able to communicate. They have the fun of making something, and everybody contributes."


Ms Marks is rehearsing the students for their show this Friday in the InterACT Disability Arts Festival, set up by Paula Crimmens in 2011. Like Ms Marks, Ms Crimmens trained as a drama therapist in England. When she arrived in New Zealand 20 years ago, she had to educate locals about what that meant, so she set up Interacting Theatre in 2006 to offer drama, film-making and songwriting classes for disabled people.

"Performance is a positive thing," she says. "Traditionally, a disabled person will be sat in the audience, just watching. We want them to be part of it. We discovered people were just waiting for a stage - build it and they will come."

Ms Crimmens estimates that over the festival's three days, some 300 people, from 5-year-olds up, will take to the stage. There are workshops in craft, circus, mural painting, and even yoga around Henderson's Corban Estate Arts Centre.

The gala night is for professional artists including singer-songwriter Caitlin Smith, circus performer Sarah Houbolt with her challenging carnival show Dangerous Bodies (a riff on historical freak shows) and musician and mental health advocate Johnny Angel.

Ms Marks says drama therapy can work a lot better than other therapies because it is so dynamic.

"You're not sitting on a sofa, you're doing stuff, it's incredibly revealing. Occasionally you have inhibited or nervous people, but often if they are a little bit courageous, they lose themselves and then find that they're enjoying themselves and they've done something brave."

Working up a theatre piece requires patience. As the class assemble outside for the Herald photographer, they are laughing and getting into character - "swimming" in the shiny satin sea, two blokes jawing by the "barbecue", sunglasses and sun-hats being worked as everyone finds their cues.

After the performance there'll be a video of the show to share with friends and family, and more imaginative play to work through problems or help with skills.