Special theater integrates talents of disabled and able-bodied performers

IMG 0204 2 copy Open Circle rehearsalCast members rehearse for the Open Circle Theatre Retrospective. COURTESY PHOTO  Rob McQuay’s formal theater experience began in junior high.

He acted through high school and college, then trained at Studio Theatre. He performed in area dinner theaters and several professional ones, including Montgomery County’s Olney Theatre Center, Round House Theatre, and Imagination Stage.

“It’s a full-time thing,” said McQuay.

Next, he is headlining “To Reach the Unreachable Star: an Open Circle Theatre Retrospective,” a 90-minute stage performance filled with song, dance, and humor to familiarize audiences with its work and raise funds to support it.

Open Circle Theatre is the DC area’s first professional theater group whose productions integrate the talents of artists with disabilities. People with and without disabilities sharing a love of theater, professional experience, and a commitment to full access established the theater group in 2003, said Suzanne Richard, Open Circle’s artistic director.

The Retrospective, which will be performed this weekend at Silver Spring Black Box Theatre, will present highlights of the theater group’s past shows– including “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “The Who’s Tommy” as well as its 2018 spring production of “Man of La Mancha.”   

IMG 3500 1 copy Rob McQuay Open CircleActor Rob McQuay rehearses for the Open Circle Theatre Retrospective. COURTESY PHOTO  McQuay’s extensive career almost ended abruptly.

On August 1, 1990, he was at the beach with his baby son and pregnant wife and went to catch a wave. Instead the wave caught him.

“It broke my neck in two places,” McQuay said. “I became a paraplegic.”

He was in rehab for two months. Two months after returning home McQuay received a phone call from local actor Larry Redmond, asking if he was “ready to go back on stage.”

Next thing he knew, McQuay was indeed back on stage.

It was a small part – the Prince in “Romeo and Juliet” – but it was a start.

“I’ve been busy ever since,” McQuay said, including an active association with Open Circle.  

The theater itself had a hiatus, while Richard, who also has a disability, took time off to care for a family member. Now Open Circle is back, trying to meet financial goals and plan for future productions, including the upcoming production of “Man of La Mancha."

McQuay will play the dual leads of Don Quijana and Don Quixote in the Tony Award-winning 1965 show that Cervantes’s classic novel inspired.

In fact, many will recognize the Retrospective’s title as a line from the musical’s most famous song, “The Impossible Dream.”

The title might also relate to the dreams of performers like McQuay to be on stage regardless. “People often say the disabled are an ‘inspiration,’ Richard explained, “but for us, what we do is about empowering the disabled. We embrace similarities rather than differences.”

“Man of La Mancha” will take place at Montgomery College’s Community Arts Center in Rockville, though the Silver Spring Black Box Theatre will host the Retrospective.

The original musical plays out in 16th century Spain under the ominous eye of the Inquisition. Open Circle will transpose the action to contemporary times at Guantanamo Bay but will use the “original script,” Richard said.

Depending on the particular play he's in, McQuay may or may not use a wheelchair onstage. In the musical “Evita,” revolutionary Che Guevara is the narrator, floating in and out of scenes. “So I floated in and out on set pieces,” the actor said.

On the other hand, the role of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in “Annie,” of course, requires a wheelchair.

He hasn’t yet said what will happen in “Man of La Mancha.”

“Directors have said to me that working with me in my wheelchair brings another level of subtext to the characters,” McQuay said.

Open Circle also incorporates signing for the deaf and hearing-impaired in an unconventional way: the signers are also actors portraying characters.

Richard is directing the Retrospective, which she co-wrote with T. Chase Meacham, and Jake Null is the music director.

The Retrospective takes place September 15-17 at the Silver Spring Black Box Theatre, 8641 Colesville Road in downtown Silver Spring. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.., and Sunday at 2 p.m. For information, visit the theater group’s website at


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