As part of the 2020 Next Stage Festival, award-winning disabled writer-performer, Ophira Calof, shares her experience of disability and chronic illness in her solo show, Literally Titanium. This cabaret-style performance allows Calof to pull out all the stops—as a trained opera singer, a charismatic storyteller and a disarming comedienne.
Calof commands the stage, her fancy electronic wheelchair whirling her dynamic presence around with whimsical abandon. She begins by introducing herself and highlighting the specific characteristics of the relaxed performance format of her show—house lights only partially dimmed, the allowance for noise and movement, the freedom to come and go from the space. From there, she launches into a giddy, cartoon-logic re-telling of her birth—how her little baby body was propelled out into a world that was and is resistant to the bodily specifics of her.
In that struggle to adapt to a world that is inconvenient and frustrating, a split has formed between her Body (the personality we’re meeting here) and her Mind (which she affectionately refers to as “Mind-y”). She tells her story as the beleaguered half of a strained relationship, with the Mind as a self-absorbed and demanding partner. This framing of the show as a grand romantic gesture—Mind-y organizing this performance to give Body a chance to express herself—turns out to be more nuanced than expected.
Though it seems, at first, to be just a narrative gimmick, the relationship between Mind and Body is explored thoroughly, with the analogy becoming more absurd yet resonant as their dynamic is explored. The sweet moments of mutual affection, the painful rifts and sense of inadequacy, the all-out war between two distinctive personalities locked together in a fight for validation: these are striking and well-developed. Particularly poignant is how Calof convey’s Body’s desperate desire to be more than an obstacle for Mind to overcome, that the simple reality of her is worthy of loving attention.
A gifted vocalist, Calof belts out some engaging renditions of pop and show tunes. These are always fun, though sometimes their connection to her story is strained. In one of my favourite bits, she sings the three verses of “O mio babbino caro” from Puccini’s opera Gianni Schicchi. The aria is lush and beautiful, but after each sung verse, Calof translates in monotone. It is hilarious to hear the histrionics of an opera libretto recited deadpan and verbatim. But, of course, as the humour illustrates, we don’t go to opera for the plot or sensible dialogue; we go for the grand spectacle of big emotions played out on vast sets with glorious music.
Calof effectively captures this fascinating disconnect between what things are—the physical, unadorned reality—and what they mean to us. Our reality can be transformed by grand, artistic gestures into spectacles of great beauty, intense emotion and shared communal experience. And here, Calof creates a space for the fullness of her existence—inviting us in to celebrate both the struggle and the joy.
Taking advantage of the relaxed performance framework, Calof takes a three minute rest, letting us know we can take this opportunity to do whatever we need to make ourselves more comfortable. It was during this break, watching as she maneuvered her chair to ease the effects of gravity upon her body, that the physical cost of this performance is made viscerally explicit. And it is all the more potent coming on the heels of a particularly lively song-and-wheel-dance number—her modified version of “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” from Gypsy.
The venue is fully accessible and the relaxed performance presentation accommodates a variety of special needs. This option—and the much-needed inclusivity it fosters—is becoming a standard fixture in the performance schedules of many productions, though it feels thematically charged and relevant here in Calof’s fun and heartfelt show.