Ord, a character raised in a moonlit realm where myths run amok, must cheer up a dejected carp. (It’s that kind of world.) She sings to him that one day he’ll become a glorious dragon.
“The message of the song is you may feel like you’re small now, but things will get better,” says Anne-Marie Plass, a Portland actor with a rare developmental condition called Williams syndrome, of her role as Ord. Plass will act the part this month in Up the Fall, play commissioned by PHAME—a nonprofit dedicated to creating opportunities for actors with developmental disabilities—written by Portland playwright Debbie Lamedman with music written by local folk performer Laura Gibson.
If Up the Fall’s August world premiere at Artists Repertory Theatre represents two years of work for PHAME, it is no less notable for Gibson—not only because it’s her very first work of musical theater but also because her early drafts were consumed in a New York City fire that destroyed her apartment building and killed two people. The flames claimed nearly everything she owned, including work on her first new album since 2012. Gibson, who had relocated to New York to study at Hunter College, recouped some of her losses through crowdfunding but had to rewrite much of the music from scratch.
“When something so huge happens, it takes a moment to connect back to what you were working on before,” says Gibson, whose prior recordings, like 2009’s Beasts of Seasons, focused on empathy and human bonding. “Once I got back into the play and the album, it all absolutely seemed connected.”
Indeed, Gibson’s challenge finds an echo in the careers of the ambitious actors in Up the Fall. According to PHAME executive director Stephen Marc Beaudoin, Oregon’s mainstream theater community has yet to hire a single actor with a developmental disability. Despite much talk about inclusive-ness, skilled actors like Plass are still often considered last, if at all.
For her part, Plass is busy readying for her star turn—her seventh role with PHAME—by practicing Ord’s ballad to the talking carp:
You’re bound to scale the waterfall
I know there’s so much more for you beyond
Go on, you strong and silent type,
Someday, I hope to see you fly
For already I can see the fire in you