Inspired by her brother, Julia Hogan Laurenson and Seesaw discuss inclusivity in theater


Photo courtesy Jenny Graham

Luke Hogan Laurenson in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s 2019 production of “Hairspray,” directed by ITF presenter Christopher Liam Moore. Moore of the production will be speaking at Seesaw Theater’s annual Inclusive Theatre Festival this weekend.

Charlie Goldsmith, Holiday Guide Editor

The day Luke Hogan Laurenson started walking independently in 2016, he asked his mom to turn on some Taylor Swift music. She played “Shake It Off” and took out her phone to record it on video.

Luke, a freshman in high school, got out of his wheelchair and did exactly what the hit song told him to do.

Luke, who was born with cerebral palsy, has always loved to perform but hasn’t received many opportunities to do so. A prominent director in Oregon, Christopher Liam Moore, was so moved by Luke’s story that he decided to cast him and several other disabled people in his upcoming production of “Hairspray.”

At the climax of the musical, with “You Can’t Stop the Beat” booming in the background, Luke got out of his wheelchair and danced with antagonist Velma Von Tussle. It was a moment Luke had been looking forward to his whole life.

Seesaw Theatre puts on an annual Inclusive Theatre Festival in Evanston, and this year’s edition is dedicated to Luke and his performance in “Hairspray.” The festival will begin Saturday morning and run through Sunday evening.

Communication Sophomore Julia Hogan Laurenson, Luke’s sister and the organizer of Seesaw’s event, said she hopes the event inspires others to create more theater opportunities for people with disabilities.

“I just saw the utter joy that theater brought to his life,” Julia said. “He was so excited to be there every single day, and so I saw what an impact it had for him. I hope that with Seesaw and with all the work that’s being done by incredible people across the country, that we can continue to provide those opportunities.”

Now in its fourth year, the Inclusive Theatre Festival has grown from a brief panel into a two-day conference. Seesaw will host multiple panels, workshops and presentations featuring experts in accessible theater from across the country, sharing ways to make theater more inclusive for people with physical or developmental disabilities.

This year, Seesaw has invited Moore to present on directing “Hairspray” along with other speakers who are doing groundbreaking work in this field, Hogan Laurenson said. Another leader in the field, Sara Perry, has developed a method of improving the social skills of children with autism through the works of Shakespeare. This weekend, she will be demonstrating several of the drama games she’s created.

Communication senior Ellie Levine, the artistic director of Seesaw, said she’s been surprised to see how quickly this event has grown in such a short time.

“When it started four years ago it really was a small panel discussion where we were just really interested in learning more about what accessibility in theater looks like,” she said. “The second year it developed into a one-day conference with Chicago presenters. Last year it expanded and we brought in external presenters. This year it continues to get bigger in terms of adding more events and bringing in a wider variety of people.”

In addition to the Inclusive Theatre Festival, Seesaw produces plays tailored for individuals with developmental differences. For the first time, Seesaw will be touring local elementary and middle schools this winter with different performances.

Communication senior and Seesaw’s executive director Olivia Zapater-Charrette said ever since the first event in 2016, Seesaw has strived to make the Inclusive Film Festival more diverse in the topics they cover. The organization has expanded to feature themes outside of theater and more research-focused presentations analyzing how theater can impact people with different types of disabilities.

“We have a broader network of presenters and attendees,” Zapater-Charrette said. “We’re getting more and more and more diverse groups. My biggest dream is getting the Northwestern community more excited about this.”

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