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  • Josie Lawrence

    As the Co-Chair of the Board of Directors for Theater Breaking Through Barriers it was a bit difficult to read Mr. Rothbart’s editorial (Once More Unto the Breach) as he begins his article with a rather harsh depiction of the company’s work. I can only imagine Mr. Rothbart has targeted the company as TBTB is the only NYC Off-Broadway
    theater company whose mission is to advance the work of professional actors and writers with disabilities. Our founding Artistic Director, Ike Schambelan, who began the company over 35 years ago as Theater By The Blind was dismayed about the fact that the Disability Act of 1973 has done little to advance the rights of the disabled in the theater community. Ike was a champion of the disabled, not out of guilt, but out of love for his mother, who was vision impaired and made it his life’s work to create a space for disabled artists to make their art. As he always said, “it’s about the Art”. I only wish Ike could have survived his battle with cancer long enough to witness the company’s first best play revival nomination by the Off Broadway Alliance for our recent production of Agatha Christie’s “The Unexpected Guest”.
    Upon reading the remainder of Mr. Rothbart’s article there’s no question that he has the right to speak on the inequality and representation of the disabled community within the arts world. That said he is also very angry. I only wish he had used his anger to build upon the dialogues created by companies with missions to bring underserved voices to the stage. Tearing each other down doesn’t serve the greater goals.
    Josie Lawrence
    Co-Chair and Treasurer of the Board
    Theater Breaking Through Barriers

  • Sue

    That was certainly an angry piece. And I can understand where Mr. Rothbart’s anger comes from. The disabled community is often ignored or dismissed, and certainly has a long way to go to have an equal voice and representation in the arts field. However, I think some of his anger is misdirected or misguided.

    I am Co-Chair of the Board of Theater Breaking Through Barriers, which Mr. Rothbart mentions in his article. TBTB is dedicated to working with professional actors with disabilities, providing opportunities for them to pursue their craft in readings, workshops, and full performances, and developing their skills as actors, writers, and directors. I’m unsure why he takes issue with the name of our company, when the rest of his article seems devoted to discussing those very barriers that our company seeks to break down. Mr. Rothbart implies that TBTB is not given “a seat at the table” in the American theater industry, and implies that it is part of the problem of “ghettoizing” disabled theater workers. I have to disagree. TBTB is an integrated company; rather than setting apart disabled actors, we produce shows that feature performers with physical and mental disabilities alongside what Mr. Rothbart calls TAB actors. (We have done this for more than 35 years, in dozens of professional, Off Broadway productions.) The audience often doesn’t know who onstage is disabled and who isn’t, allowing them to focus on the art onstage, not the disability. Our company has also been proud to work with noted artists of the American theater, who have written short works specifically for TBTB’s company, including John Guare, David Henry Hwang, and Neil LaBute. Currently, Samuel D. Hunter (Drama Desk winner, Obie winner, recipient of a MacArthur fellowship) is writing a full-length play for TBTB.

    Mr. Rothbart seems to criticize the mainstream theater community for not providing opportunities to disabled actors, while also disparaging those companies that do provide these opportunities. I understand his frustration, but this leads to a no-win situation. The best way for disabled performers to get the training he wishes for is to work, and companies like Theater Breaking Through Barriers offer opportunities to work. TBTB is not a charity for “poor little Timmys.” The company is a resource for professional, talented artists, and our work holds up to the quality of other Off Broadway theaters of our size. Our track record includes beautiful productions of Shakespeare plays, the hilarious “Bass for Picasso,” and moving productions of John Belluso’s work. Our spring 2015 production of Agatha Christie’s “The Unexpected Guest” was nominated for an Off Broadway Alliance Award for Best Revival, alongside respected companies Theater for a New Audience, Mint Theater, Keen Company and Actors Company Theater.

    The piece indicates that people with disabilities are not working in administrative positions in the American theater. I would like to remind Mr. Rothbart that not all disabilities are visible. I have a disability (which is not widely known or easily observed), and I work in an administrative position at a major Off Broadway theater. The TBTB Board consists of four members who all have personal experience with disabilities. Mr. Rothbart claims that people with disabilities don’t want a seat at the table anymore; they want to run the restaurant. We are running this particular restaurant.

    In the article, Mr. Rothbart writes that disability “[isn’t included] as a category within a diversity initiative.” I urge him to study this issue more closely. This year, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, an agency which funds more than 900 cultural organizations in the cultural capital of the world – launched a Diversity Initiative, asking every one of its grantees to fill out a diversity survey. The survey specifically asked about each and every staff and Board member at the arts organization, and in addition to asking about their race, ethnicity, and gender, it also asked about disability status. This survey is being funded by national foundations The Ford Foundation and Rockefeller Brothers Fund. It is certain to gain attention and have an impact on the NYC and national arts field.

    Please look around the field, Mr. Rothbart. There is work to be done, but steps are being taken, and great work with disabled performers and administrators is already being done.
    Susan Ferziger
    Co-Chair and Secretary of the Board
    Theater Breaking Through Barriers

  • Nicholas Viselli

    After reading through Mr. Rothbart’s editorial (Once More Unto The Breach), I was stopped in my tracks at the outset when he chose to launch an attack against Theater Breaking Through Barriers in New York City While I can certainly understand the anger and frustration he possesses regarding the perceptions and treatment of artists and performers with disabilities in our society today, I’m completely confused as to why he chose to pick Theater Breaking Through Barriers as the target of his vitriolic rant. Based on his descriptions of how he perceived their work, it’s clear that he knows nothing about their company or the work they do and he appeared to be lashing out in ignorance without ever experiencing a TBTB production or even learning about our history or what we do. Either that or he is just a disgruntled artist with an axe to grind against someone who happens to be playing on his team. Since I can’t do much about the latter, I would like to set the record straight for Mr. Rothbart, so he might have a clearer idea about the work which he so blindly criticized.

    –Theater Breaking Through Barriers is the only NYC theater company currently working under an Off-Broadway contract (and one of only a few theaters both locally and nationally) dedicated to advancing the work of professional artists and writers with disabilities. Unlike many other companies looking to advance performers with disabilities, TBTB has always been (and will always be) and integrated company, mixing artists of all abilities and disabilities in their work — including artists, writers and administrators without disabilities. By attempting to establish a level playing field, mixing artists with and without disabilities, TBTB feels we can better focus on the art produced rather than the disabilities of those who produce it.

    –TBTB was founded in 1979 as Theater By The Blind, making it one of the oldest theater companies in this country dedicated to advancing the work of professional artists with disabilities. When TBTB was founded, the company focused on advancing the work of blind and low vision artists. In 2008, TBTB decided to expand its mission to encompass artists of all abilities and disabilities. At that point, they decided to change their name, while keeping the acronym, by which most people recognized them. Thus, TBTB – Theater By The Blind became TBTB – Theater Breaking Through Barriers. The name which now represents the company was not conceived to merely represent or suggest the barriers that disabled people must traverse, as Mr. Rothbart so shallowly suggests. Rather, the name represents the barriers that all of our society face and must break through to grow and better understand. Barriers equal limitations. Since EVERYONE has limitations, the barriers implied in the name is meant for everyone — not just those in the disabled community. Based on Mr. Rothbart’s article, it is clear that some of us have more barriers in our lives than others.

    Since I have been a company member of TBTB since 1997 (the year Mr. Rothbart stopped being a company member of The Living Theatre here in New York, as his resume suggests) and am currently TBTB’s Artistic Director, it became very difficult for me to continue reading his diatribe after his thoughtless commentary on work, which he apparently has never seen. If he has seen seen our work within the past 15 or so years, he might not have attempted to paint such an inaccurate picture of us while writing an “editorial” for a prestigious theater magazine which is showcasing disability and included an article which features our work (which I highly encourage anyone reading this to check out).

    For Mr. Rothbart, I cordially invite you as my guest to come out to see the work we do at TBTB. I can guarantee that you will find something quite different from the fantasy you described of us in your article. I also ask that in future, you please look carefully at the target upon which you plan to fire. You might discover that you’re engaging in friendly fire with one of your greatest allies. If that is the case and you choose to proceed, then you must be prepared to have the first two words in your angry diatribe shouted right back at you — only with a bit more emphasis.

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