Speechless, not mindless

When Chris Mueller-Medlicott joined a unique Durham theater group in 2005, it sparked a major breakthrough.

'Listening' tour: Polly Medlicott of Barnardsville plans to hit the road with a documentary about her son and the connections and communications breakthrough he had while taking part in a unique theater project in Durham. Chris Mueller-Medlicott had cerebral palsy and died of pneumonia in 2006. Medlicott hopes her son's story will inspire new inclusive theater groups. Photo courtesy of Polly Medlicott

Richard Reho, director of the Community Inclusive Theater Project, invited the young man with cerebral palsy to take part in a production. The experience brought Mueller-Medlicott new friends and a new voice, in the form of an assisted-typing method that helped him communicate.

"In the context of the theater group, he just blossomed, and he found a way to communicate," says his mother, Polly Medlicott. Her son wound up becoming co-director of the project. "It was just an amazing experience for him in what turned out to be the last year of his life."

Mueller-Medlicott died of pneumonia in 2006; he was 21. The loss devastated his mother, who'd devoted her life to him. Now, however, the Barnardsville resident has a new mission: She's taking a documentary about her son on the road, aiming to dispel assumptions about people with disabilities — and perhaps inspire other inclusive-theater projects.

A New Kind of Listening by Durham filmmaker Kenny Dalsheimer focuses on both Mueller-Medlicott's story and the theater project, which is based on the idea that the arts can help all people express themselves.

"We want … to use the film to inform, inspire and encourage inclusive community arts to happen," says Medlicott, a co-producer. "Without any money or any particular set of resources, we created these amazing relationships. Disabled and nondisabled people found a way to be creative as a community and find their voices and express themselves," she notes. "This is the sort of thing that could happen anywhere."

Citing the movie's tag line, "Speechless does not equal mindless," Medlicott says she wants to emphasize that just because someone can't communicate easily doesn't mean they don't understand what's happening around them. "In disability world, you need to presume competence. You assume that they are in there and that they understand a lot more than you think."

A New Kind of Listening will be shown Sunday, March 7, at the Jubilee! Community in downtown Asheville (see below).
And the next day, the church will host a workshop titled "Connecting Authentically to People Who Live With Disability." Medlicott says it will offer people a chance to explore feelings of fear "or whatever else it is that keeps them from connecting with people of disabilities."

Medlicott says she's excited about telling her son's story and seeing new arts projects spring up. Already, "Something interesting is happening" in Asheville after she helped bring together people from local churches as well as theater and advocacy groups.

And by the time of the screening, says Medlicott, "Hopefully we'll announce the next steps for the Asheville Inclusive Theater Project," which could include a series of improvisational activities.

A free screening of A New Kind of Listening will be presented Sunday, March 7, at 7 p.m. at Jubilee! Community (46 Wall St. in downtown Asheville).

And on Monday, March 8, the church will host a workshop titled "Connecting Authentically to People Who Live With Disability" (suggested donation: $10). The workshop will run from 7-9 p.m. To register, e-mail medlicottpolly@yahoo.com.


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