When Michaela Cantwell had a stroke 11 years ago, she feared the curtain may have to come down on the career she adored.
Out celebrating with fellow cast members after a successful run of the State Theatre's production of Romeo & Juliet, she suffered a medical emergency and was rushed to Adelaide Hospital where doctors operated on a small tumour near her heart.
She was comatose for five days. It took a two-month stay in hospital and a further four-month stint at a rehabilitation centre just to regain her balance and reclaim her ability to walk.
Within 12 months however, Cantwell’s star was once again shining brightly among the Adelaide theatre scene thanks largely to her own persistence – as well as the support of a one-of-a-kind theatre group called No Strings Attached.
“I really wanted to continue acting even after the stroke,” Cantwell says.
“I knew No Strings before the stroke from working with people from the organisation previously in theatre and film. Being the only disabled theatre company (that I knew), I joined them.”
Around the same time Kathryn Hall, then 23, also joined the Adelaide-based theatre group.
Living with cerebral palsy, Hall had until that point been focusing on dancing, but sought something less body-focused.
“My energy levels can drain very quickly and then I find it hard to keep my balance. One of my support coordinators heard about No Strings and suggested I get in contact with them. I came along to a workshop and loved it,” Hall says.
Established in 1994 by performer, writer and entrepreneur Helen Flinter-Leach, No Strings is a collaborative theatre-making development program created specifically to offer those living with disability the chance to develop career pathways in the performing arts.
Currently it operates with nearly 50 participants over three theatre-making workshops and two creative writing workshops. Largely funded through contestable grants and public and private donations, the group also offers theatre skills development courses to eligible NDIS participants.
Hosting an annual end of year showcase, the group make regular appearances at the Adelaide Fringe Festival. In the past they have toured both locally and internationally with the production of I Forgot to Remember to Forget being staged at The Korean Arts and Disability Centre (South Korea), as well as the True Colours Festival in Singapore.
The group’s marketing and communications creative Radhé Osborn says No Strings operates differently to traditional theatre groups because it aims to prepare people to not only be “workforce-ready” but to be “world-ready”.
Osborn says the collaborative program created by No Strings has been built solely to benefit group participants “physically, socially and to help with their overall wellbeing”.
“We are giving the space for people who live with disability to improve and utilise their creative, artistic and intellectual potential. This benefits not only their own development but also enriches all of society,” she says.
Physically, the benefits are obvious with improved fitness, flexibility, coordination, balance, control and stamina.
By working in a safe and controlled environment, participants are also taught vocal projection, alongside articulation, tone of speech and expression for stage all of which can help with day-to-day life.
Socially, Osborn says the program helps attendees strengthen their social awareness and self-confidence while helping to improve listening and observation skills and building verbal and non-verbal skills.
“Our unique, dynamic and collaborative methodology can be used with any cohort regardless of age, ability, capacity and cultural heritage, empowering participants to express their own lived experiences. We also utilise a strength-based approach where differing abilities are engaged in a supportive environment and where all participants experience equal access and inclusive involvement in the arts,” she says.
But it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. Going online during the COVID-19 pandemic was certainly a challenge the group had to overcome. However, Osborn says that “people who live with disability are the leaders in adapting. They have a lot to teach able-bodied people, and we hope to showcase their voices as we enter into a new normal for the world.”
Determined to put their resilience on show, once restrictions had eased the group made the decision to create a new show, Ignition Point 21 – Out of the Box, about how each participant felt during COVID-19 and the numerous lockdowns, being stuck in a box and then breaking free.
“This was chosen because our participants over all of our classes were expressing the same feelings and ideas of being trapped ‘in a box’ so we created an entire show out of their lived experiences,” Osborn says.
“We have found that when people living with disabilities have the opportunity to improve and utilise their creative, artistic and intellectual potential, this benefits not only their own development but also enriches all of society.”
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