by Charlotte Karp
VANCOUVER – Niall McNeil lives and breathes theatre.
As a professional writer, actor, and artistic collaborator, he’s instigated and starred in a number of shows all over the country. Now in his 35th year, McNeil is taking on the meaty role of King Arthur in his latest project, King Arthur’s Night.
This particular stage adaptation was written by McNeil and his long-time friend and collaborator, Marcus Youssef, and includes a cast of more than 25 actors, singers, and musicians, some of whom have Down syndrome.
“It’s a spectacle, and it’s quite remarkable – it’s unlike anything I’ve ever done,” says Youssef. “Sometimes we have to find new ways of doing things that work for all the cast and crew members so we can all feel successful, and the process of slowing down and paying attention is good for art-making, and good for human relationships in general.”
McNeil researched the story heavily, and part of his fascination with King Arthur was the complexity and power of the character. Audiences have been surprised and moved by the depth of collaboration between people who have different lived experiences – there’s no mention of physical or cognitive difference at any point in the show.
“After a talkback session at a show in Toronto, an acting teacher approached Niall and said, ‘I wish I could bring all my students to the show, because your performance is exactly what I’m trying to teach them all the time,’” says Youssef.
“I think she was referring to the fact that all our actors from the Down Syndrome Research Foundation – Andrew Gordon, Tiffany King, and Matthew Tom-Wing – have extraordinary skills at being in the moment, which is something professional actors spend lifetimes trying to achieve. These four, including Niall, are just really, really good at it.”
When asked about creating opportunities for creatives with Down syndrome, the pair recount a Facebook comment they received from the mother of a young son: “As the opening number started with 20-plus actors and musicians onstage, I started to weep, because I know the possibilities for my son will just get bigger and bigger as he gets older.”
“Comments like that are hard to forget,” says McNeil.
King Arthur’s Night runs at the Frederic Wood Theatre from January 31-February 4 as part of the PuSh Festival.