Ask Eva Thorpe whether she was a live-out-loud, extra-lipstick-and-sequins kind of theater kid growing up and she demurs.
“I was always on the cusp of being a theater kid,” she admitted. Growing up in Northern Virginia, she said, “I did tech every now and then in high school, but I never took theater classes. I had friends in theater and I liked being backstage,” but she avoided the spotlight.
Now, more than a decade after dabbling in behind the scenes, Thorpe is founder and producer of Heart House Inclusive Productions. This community theater with heart focuses on its mission of mounting musicals and cabarets that integrate performers with disabilities into the theater community.
“While I’ve always liked theater, I always knew, since my brother was born, that I was going to do something involved with the disability community. I just wasn’t sure what that would be,” she said. Thorpe’s younger brother Michael was born with Down syndrome, but, more important, he seems to have been born with an innate love of musical theater.
“We were very close when we were kids,” Thorpe said. “We spent most of our youth watching old musical movies and … he had his various learning deficits so people assumed he couldn’t do it, but this kid memorized entire movie musicals — every single part, every single lyric line, every dance step.” That’s how brother and sister bonded growing up. In his high school inclusion program, Michael Thorpe had numerous opportunities to perform in his school’s theater productions. “That,” his sister said, “was just the best thing that could have happened to this kid who loved theater so much.”
After high school, alas, the opportunities for Thorpe’s brother disappeared. “Suddenly,” she said, “there weren’t any theaters or activities that were right for him — and he’s really a social butterfly.” With very few inclusive theaters for adults in the disability community, Thorpe decided she would start a theater company after an outing to see Newsies with her brother.
“We had a great time,” she said, “but later that night he got so upset. He said, ‘I’m never going to do that. It’s never going to be me.’ And I said, ‘It absolutely will. We’re starting a theater company.’”
Thorpe called her long-time friend Clara Hoch and got to work. They learned the ins and outs of starting a nonprofit and relied on a college “hey, let’s put on a show” moment to kickstart the fledgling theater.
Thorpe explained, “Clara and I goofed around in college and ended up writing a very silly musical that somehow ended up in an off-Broadway festival.” Based on an in-joke that just kept going, the two, along with help from other contributors, wrote a sci-fi musical parody inspired by Star Trek. Warp Speed: A Sci Fi Parody Musical was such a hit at college in 2014 that they ended up casting New York actors for the off-Broadway festival premiere. “It was a ‘Frankenstein’ moment that ended up winning a bunch of awards while we were in school in Virginia,” at the University of Mary Washington.
Since its founding, Heart House has produced How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, a summer cabaret in 2021 after a pandemic hiatus, and most recently, in August 2022, The Addams Family.
“We want to give actors with disabilities an opportunity that they really aren’t presented with a lot,” said Thorpe, who works by day in behavioral therapy as an Applied Behavior Analysis educator in the Springfield, Virginia, area, when not overseeing Heart House. She also emphasized that the productions are not dumbed down. “We try to do more adult or mature shows … I’ve been around the disability community for my brother’s entire life. I often see shows that are more childish,” she continued. “My brother gets adult humor just fine. I think some people are a little bit shocked by that.” She added that they will do shows aimed at family audiences as well, but “everybody grows up and they may not want to see Disney musicals forever.”
As an inclusive theater, Heart House aims high, Thorpe said. “We’re trying to do high-quality productions but give actors with disabilities an opportunity that they aren’t presented with.” The casts and production crew are not all people with disabilities. “We’re trying to merge the groups together and we don’t want it to be a big deal.” She hopes audiences will simply see another actor on stage who appreciates theater, not an actor with a disability. Thorpe also emphasized that many professional actors have joined her casts and find working with a mixed abilities company rewarding. Often, no one knows who has a disability: “That’s kind of the gray area … because a lot of people have hidden disabilities that we don’t know about and that we can’t see.”
As Heart House recovers from its pandemic pause, Thorpe and her creative team are gearing up for another cabaret in February 2023, with a Valentine’s Day theme. She also plans to build some educational programming into the master plan in the coming seasons. Next summer’s big musical is still to be decided.
“I love what we’re doing at Heart House and I want people to be aware, even if they don’t come back to our theater, they can remember the experience and how we made it work,” she said. “And you can bring that knowledge to wherever you go next to help spread inclusive theater.”
About the Wendi Winters Memorial Series: DC Theater Arts has partnered with the Wendi Winters Memorial Foundation to honor the life and work of Wendi Winters, the DC Theater Arts writer who died in the Capital Gazette shooting in Annapolis, Maryland, on June 28, 2018. To honor Wendi’s legacy, the Wendi Winters Memorial Foundation has funded the Wendi Winters Memorial Series, monthly articles to be produced by DC Theater Arts to bring attention to theater companies and theater practitioners in our region who engage in exemplary work that makes our community a better place. The centerpiece of these articles is a series we are calling “The Companies We Keep,” articles offering an in-depth look at one local theater company each month. In these times of division and conflict, DC Theater Arts chooses to celebrate those who do good.
Heart House Inclusive Productions, a nonprofit 501(c)3 organization designed to help integrate actors and performers with disabilities into mainstream theater, rehearses and performs at the Dr. A.J. Ferlazzo Theater, 15941 Donald Curtis Drive, Woodbridge VA. For more information visit hearthouseip.org.