Acting all raucous

Clem Baade is a striking young man. His shaved head reveals the curve of his skull and his mouth curls quizzically. His face communicates a strong sense of empathy with eyes that appear, at times, to verge on tears. It was perhaps this presence that prompted Kate Sulan, director of RAWCUS Theatre Company, to choose him for the video sequences flowing through the company’s most recent work, Sideshow.

A collective of actors with and without disabilities, RAWCUS was established four years ago. Earlier this year, Sideshow received significant acclaim as part of the 2004 Next Wave Festival. A group-devised performance, Sideshow was inspired by Angela Carter’s fairytale of the same name, based on the Hunchback of Notre Dame. Clem’s character in Sideshow was projected on screens and sheets, and moved with delicate purpose across a darkened stage, creating an ominous sense of things about to go horribly wrong. Uncannily, these sequences mirrored Clem’s personal journey over the last few years.

The eldest of four children, Clem Baade has intellectual and physical disabilities. Born in the early 1970s, doctors indicated that because of his disabilities, he would be best supported by specialist services rather than in his own home. ‘Evidently, I felt like a puppet because I didn’t have any use of my hands or legs for a while. So the doctor told mum to send me to a home and forget about me’, he says, his eyes watering slightly.

As was the practice only 30 years ago, doctors did not foresee much potential in a baby born with a disability. Children like Clem, they thought, were best institutionalised and forgotten. Clem’s parents, however, decided to challenge the professionals and contradict the advice of the time, giving him all the energy they could muster. Clem speaks with pride and a deep love of his family. In a world striving for perfection where many of us feel uncomfortable about our own inabilities, let alone others’, he feels that family is often a haven for people with a disability. 

The second last night of RAWCUS’s season of Sideshow, Clem celebrated not just another successful performance, but the six-month anniversary of the kidney transplant operation he underwent in December. His commitment to RAWCUS meant that rehearsals and performances for Sideshow were staggered around hospital visits where he received anti-rejection medication. Prior to his kidney transplant, most of his time with RAWCUS—the weekly rehearsals and numerous performances—was spent suffering from kidney failure. Only now can Clem see how sick he was. But humble and reserved, Clem refuses to believe his achievement of even making it to the stage is remarkable.

Clem’s contributions to group work are often inspired by the poetry he writes. Because of his disability, his speech is significantly limited. And while he says he puts up with it, he can never completely accept people’s inability to understand him. He repeats words over and over. And while some people kindly keep guessing, others are uncomfortable and unsure how to react. Sometimes Clem’s frustration causes him to give up and fall mute: better to keep something to yourself than have your words fall into empty spaces, never to be really heard. But he refuses to live in a silent world.

‘I did not speak until age ten’, Clem says, ‘and my voice was impaired’. A testament to Clem’s persistence, he still has speech therapy sessions once a week, and has done so for over 15 years: ‘I am proud that I speak well, walk and work well, and that I act well’, he grins.

Language for Clem is often only a barrier because of others’ inability to use some simple lateral thinking and understand basic signs. He supplements his speech using a range of sign language techniques, many of his own making. When I am unable to ascertain the name of his street as I drive him home, he asks me to think of Robin Hood. It cleverly leads me to Sherwood. His command of the written word demonstrates the ability to draw depth and sophistication through what may appear to be just simple sentences.

Clem’s acting began in 1992 with Justus Theatre Company: a troupe of performers with disabilities, supported by St Martin’s Youth Theatre, launching the ‘best bit’ of Clem’s journey. Theatre became his focus for expression, friendships and direction. It was at Justus that Clem met director, Kate Sulan. Clem made the move with Kate from Justus into a new project that spawned RAWCUS. ‘Theatre is my life come true’, he notes. Through Justus, Clem found a way to fit in, to fit in to a place with others, and into himself.

His theatre work allowed him to explore how he occupied his own body, how it moved, how it could express what he wanted to say and what it was limited to. Clem’s hands help shape his words: ‘I was in a bubble. Justus burst that bubble. (It) let me out’.

Fitting into himself has helped Clem to force his way into a society that pursues physical perfection. ‘As I have matured, I have been able to branch out into employment, acting and to study’, Clem says.

Everywhere, I have interacted with many, many people.’ And, they, like Clem are the richer for it. As a founding member of RAWCUS, Clem is enthusiastic and passionate about their significant achievements.

RAWCUS began in 2000 by specifically creating a performance for the Australian Cerebral Palsy Association’s National Conference. That performance, Flight, was then performed as part of celebrations for the International Day for People with a Disability in December 2000. RAWCUS places disability squarely on stage, as a celebration of ability and diversity, but they don’t make the ride easy. Audiences are asked to consider issues from social isolation to genetic engineering. The actors are not afraid to shatter society’s limitations on stage.

RAWCUS is a theatre company of people with a great range of abilities. Clem believes much can be achieved through the RAWCUS formula of workshop-devised performance. ‘RAWCUS accommodates a range of all different people’, he says. Clem sees how quickly difference disappears in the face of people recognising their similarities on stage, as well as recognising their weaknesses and raw emotions.

RAWCUS’s 2002 performance, Designer Child, was a challenging piece exploring issues of cloning and genetic engineering. Clem’s view on these issues is more than strong: ‘Cloning is wrong’, he says. The development of performance centred around these issues was powerful, asking its performers to reflect upon their very existence, and what that means in a world celebrating the complete physical transformation of people on reality TV. ‘I just know how glad I am I was born’, Clem says. ‘I am so glad that I am me.’

It has been a hectic couple of years for Clem Baade. RAWCUS have now headed back into the rehearsal room to work with experienced dancers and actors to develop their next show to be performed at Theatreworks in December this year. Despite his personal triumphs, the success Clem feels most passionate about is RAWCUS. It is in the ‘silence before the applause’ that Clem knows people have been touched, that they have been moved to feel something. And while he can’t know for sure what that feeling is, he knows that feeling things, anything, is good.

‘RAWCUS is just something. It means for me the most loving, caring theatre company. And, it is not just a company. It is a huge family based in a theatre world.’

A world where a striking young man, full of ability, can really make an impact.

Daniel Donahoo is an OzProspect fellow. OzProspect is a non-partisan public policy think-tank. Tania Andrusiak is a freelance writer and editor.



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