From clubs in San Francisco to shopping malls in St. Louis to training programs in Florida and Maine to professional theatres in Los Angeles, Chicago and Providence, the theatre of disability has invigorated America’s cultural landscape. Insisting on the right to access–as audience members, as performers on stage and crew backstage, and as playwrights, actors and directors–disabled theatre artists are challenging our assumptions about what disability is and what it means.”Disabled characters shaped by the old cautionary and sentimental models of representation have filled the stage for generations, from the stigmatized Oedipus and Richard III to Tiny Tim, the special child who manifests innocence and goodness in the world,” says Victoria Ann Lewis, founder of Other Voices, a program hosted by Los Angeles’s Mark Taper Forum, which for 18 years has been generating plays and performances by disabled theatre artists.
Lewis makes the point that while Richard III may be a great play, those who stage or see it must confront the assumption that a deformed body represents an evil soul. Other examples abound. In The Glass Menagerie, to what extent does Laura’s disability play into society’s assumptions of the disabled as helpless victims? How should we view Dickens’s Tiny Tim, the sentimentalized cripple? Is this kind of metaphoric representation still useful today? Is it dangerous? These questions are among the many taken up below, in a conversation I moderated in January between nine leading figures in the theatre of disability movement.
In the same way that the Black Power movement in the ’70s insisted on the unique power and beauty of African Americans, or the women’s movement empowered women to expose stereotypes and tell their own stories, the disability rights movement and “crip culture” are challenging our preconceptions about what it is to be human. Of course, as with any movement, there are variations in intentions and results. There are artists and groups whose main interest is social/political, who perceive their main work as critiquing society, changing perceptions, forging communities; given the physical and attitudinal obstacles for disabled artists, it’s hard to completely avoid the politics. There are others whose greatest interest is in artistic and aesthetic exploration and expression. For those individuals whose disabilities aren’t apparent or whose disability hasn’t deterred their artistic access, there is the luxury of the choice of whether to identify oneself as a disabled artist.
Working both inside and outside traditional theatre institutions, the disability community has nurtured a body of work devoted to the disability experience. The longest-lived disability-specific group is Brother Rick Curry’s National Theatre Workshop for the Handicapped, which has been in existence since 1977 and has campuses in Maine and New York City. NTWH offers professional training and performance opportunities to artists with disabilities. Other companies have explicitly activist aims: to empower people with disabilities to take control of their own stories and their own images through performance. Joan Lipkin’s DisAbility Project in St. Louis and Wry Crips, a disabled women’s theatre collective in the Bay area, where playwright Cheryl Marie Wade’s work was first produced, are two such groups.
The Taper’s Other Voices lab for theatre artists with disabilities has workshopped and staged plays by nearly all of the writers featured in this discussion. This program began in 1982 under Lewis’s direction, and playwright John Belluso has recently joined her as co-director. Other Voices has provided the resources–space, critical feedback, staged readings, dramaturgical support and full-scale productions–crucial to developing talented disabled theatre artists’ work to professional-level quality. According to Lewis, “Housed as it is in a legitimate theatre with an impeccable professional reputation, Other Voices can legitimize the artists in the larger cultural marketplace and also permit disabled artists to exploit the specifics of the disability experience without fear of reprisal, of the backlash often faced by artists who dare to embrace disability as their subject.”
Other Voices also provided the setting for this discussion, which brought together–by conference call and in person–Lewis, five playwrights (Belluso, Wade, Mike Ervin, Lynn Manning and Susan Nussbaum, some of whom perform their own works), two directors (Curry and Lipkin), one theorist (Carrie Sandahl) and me.
KATHLEEN TOLAN: What needs to change in American theatre today?
VICTORIA ANN LEWIS: Things need to change in the area of training. We need to aggressively recruit disabled artists for the professional training schools. The theatres need to recognize disability as part of the diversity agenda. And our casting practices need to reflect those of other minority communities, in which every effort is made to provide employment for qualified actors with disabilities. We need plays that reflect this experience, not only so that John Belluso and Lynn Manning can make a living [laughter], but so that we as a country can embrace our bodies as they age, as they change, as we need each other. We really have a great story to tell at this crossroads in the American experience.
JOAN LIPKIN: We’re talking about theatre both as a physical space and a literal and conceptual activity. Certainly the issue of physical accessibility is key. Even most new spaces tend to be poorly designed, with accommodation for a few wheelchairs at best, usually in the back row, and that’s not accessibility–it’s tokenism. So I’d like to see us construct or renovate theatres that are based less on a proscenium model and can accommodate large and diverse groups of mixed-ability audiences. Since theatre is an innately social activity, its experience has to do with who is in the audience as well as what’s on the stage. And of course the architecture that we currently have reflects an assumption of who that audience is. But frankly, I’d also like to see theatre branch out beyond the limits of its current architecture to work in different, less conventional spaces and with less traditional audiences.
CHERYL MARIE WADE: You know, it’s 10 years after the passage of the ADA, and most theatres haven’t even got a clue what that is. They don’t even know what those initials stand for. And they may have a priority to put velour on the seats, but they don’t have a priority to make the theatre in all of its activities–including the lighting and the sound and the green room and the toilets backstage and all those kinds of things–fully accessible and in full compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. It’s not in the consciousness of theatres to even be thinking in that way. Finances are used as an excuse.
JOHN BELLUSO: About a year ago, the Wall Street Journal had an article called “Handicapitalism” [rueful laughter], which talked about how the new consumer group could potentially be people with disabilities. And when I talk to theatres about that concept–about reaching out to a new audience–they become very excited. Seeking out a brand-new core group of theatregoers is really necessary at this point in history.
MICHAEL ERVIN: You almost never see a new building that has a stage in it that is accessible. The theatre space, the spaces for seating and such, may be the minimum of what the law requires, but the stage itself will not be, which really says to me that we’ve been accepted as spectators so far, but not as anybody that’s going to be part of the show.
CARRIE SANDAHL: I wanted to add a perspective from someone who’s in academic theatre. It’s not only the stage: a lot of our classrooms are not accessible [sounds of assent]. At Florida State University we have one classroom where we do movement training that is at the bottom of a flight of stairs. So I see that from a very early stage in a young actor’s career, they’re getting excluded from the curriculum, from the classroom and from the stage, because of a lack of roles and opportunities.
TOLAN: Now, we’re talking about activism, and we’re talking about access, and we’re talking about theatre. So where are these intertwined: theatre and activism? Are these a subject for a play? Can you speak a little bit, each of you, about that balance or that relationship?
LYNN MANNING: I have never thought of myself particularly as being a disabled activist, but rather as blind for 23 years of my black male life. When I came around to losing my sight and ultimately getting involved in theatre–acting and writing plays and whatnot–I was functioning sort of on my own, outside of a small little group of writers with disabilities and a mentor here and there. I wanted to get into a local theatre company. A friend I was rehearsing with, who was fully able-bodied and sighted, wanted to get into the same company, so we decided to schedule an audition. This theatre company had been in existence in L.A. for four years before we auditioned, and not only was I the first blind or disabled person to audition for it, I was the first black person, too. Because the original founders were 30-something white folks, black actors with any interest wouldn’t approach them. And of course those with disabilities didn’t approach them, because there was nothing outside saying, “Come in! You’re welcome!”
SUSAN NUSSBAUM: I started writing because I didn’t have access to the theatre once I became disabled as an actress. I wrote purely because I was very angry. It was the same kind of emotional underpinning that inspired me to become active in the disability rights movement. But I was also impressed with the richness of the experience of people with disabilities–I recognized it as a great source of material. Michael Ervin and I are collaborating on a play that he wrote and I directed–History of Bowling. We got a really bad review from a little tiny paper, where–this is really so classic–the critic criticized the play because he didn’t learn anything more about the plight of the handicapped [much general laughter].
JOHN BELLUSO: You didn’t do your job!
NUSSBAUM: I was very excited about that [more laughter]. I think we should have put that in our ad [even more laughter]. “You won’t learn anything about the plight of the handicapped, we assure you.” I don’t know what the audiences want, but the thing is I don’t really care. I hope that’s not terrible to say. But I think it’s a good thing to say that we’re a political movement, and I think that most disabled artists are political whether they decide to say that about themselves or not.
RICK CURRY: When I founded the theatre school, it stemmed directly out of a political slap-in-the face–I wasn’t even allowed to audition for a mouthwash commercial because I don’t have a right forearm. The absurdity of that propelled me into offering a course for people with disabling conditions. The minute I began, I realized that the political question–”Well, what do you have to teach us about the plight of the disabled?”–muddied the waters very quickly. Any time a disabled person enters into a prominent role anywhere, we get slapped with a political moniker. Just because you’re disabled doesn’t necessarily make you politically aware.
WADE: I would never have been in the arts had it not been for my activism. I started at Berkeley, aiming to become a professor of psychology, if you can imagine, and then my body crapped out. And it happened that while I was going through this very long exacerbation of my disability, a radical disabled women’s reader’s theatre started. It was there that I actually got an opportunity to find my voice as a writer and as a performer. And it was a good way to start, I think, because it built confidence, and it gave me an opportunity to build an idea of the story I wanted to tell about disability in a very supportive environment. Politics was very much a part of it. I’m always an activist. I have to be, because I have to make sure that there’s a way to go to the bathroom; I have to make sure there’s transportation (I don’t drive); I have to make sure people know I need an attendant with me. So I’m constantly being an activist, which means educating the people that I come in contact with in the arts world about what it takes for me to do my work.?And that’s certainly activism. It’s constantly a part of the job [general agreement].
LIPKIN: None of us operates in a vacuum. Most artistic movements–whether feminist art, performance art, alternative theatre or theatre about disabilities–come out of corresponding social movements. And in my opinion, the most interesting art reflects and furthers cultural discussion, and that is a form of activism. Everything is really political, in the sense that it supports a particular value system or point of view; but work that is more consciously political gets a bad rap in this country. There’s a prevailing assumption that political theatre is primarily didactic, and that there is little if any attention given to aesthetic standards or stylistic innovation. I don’t think that that’s necessarily true. I always say to my ensemble–the DisAbility Project–that we are equal parts art and advocacy. And the minute we fail to delight, surprise, move or mystify in how we say things as well as what we say, we’ve lost our focus. The notion of political theatre gets attacked partly because it’s not always as artful as it could be.
BELLUSO: I think that’s true. In this country we sometimes assume that a play that speaks to political or social issues is somehow inherently not pleasurable. And, because this experience of disability is seen as the antithesis of pleasure, we as people with disabilities are seen as having damaged pleasure systems, when nothing could be further from the truth. We are the funniest, sexiest [laughter], most pleasurable people that I know! That’s the kind of theatre that we want to share, because it is a story that has yet to be told.
CURRY: The other, pragmatic point is that fundraising sources have to be alerted to the fact that there’s a population group here that we have not heard from, that we really need to hear from. So the very act of just getting funding sources becomes a political statement.
LEWIS: I agree funding is a huge issue to talk about, but I’d like to go back to the subject matter of the plays and whether or not that isn’t informed by a politic. To shy away from this incredible challenge that the disabled body brings to the “Lone Rangerness” of America, and not to relish and to swim in all of those experiences, is to miss what it is that makes it exciting to be making disabled theatre right now.
TOLAN: What about disability as a metaphor?
MANNING: I’m a poet, and metaphor is always, you know, one of my favorite tools. But disability isn’t a metaphor I choose to use. Maybe it’s because disabled characters are too often used to represent some broken aspect of the human condition. So when I write a character with a disability–and all my plays aren’t populated with people with physical or sensory or visible disabilities–I try and make him or her a fully rounded character and not a metaphor for something else. Let the story be about the grander aspect of the human condition, and let the disabled character be a for-real human being, for a change.
WADE: Tennessee Williams is my favorite playwright. So I’m lost in a lot of those crippled metaphors–the damaged soul who is often represented through a damaged body. I think the trick is to figure out how to tap into that compelling emotion that draws you into that kind of metaphor, but make it a real disabled person. We have to make our characters so compelling, and their emotional journeys so rich and so full, that we demolish some of those metaphors, and those kind of simplistic and narrow views of what it means. That’s a damned hard job.
SANDAHL: When people with disabilities are performing, they challenge the way that a lot of these dramatic metaphors work, because a lot of these usual disability roles go to non-disabled actors. So it’s very easy to separate the metaphor from the person, because there is always some sort of distance; the signal that “I’m not really disabled” always seems to leak through.
BELLUSO: I agree. Having had both disabled actors and non-disabled actors interpreting roles in a play that I’ve written, I’ve found that the experience is like night and day. When you have a non-disabled actor playing the role, the curtain goes up at the end, the lights come up, it’s time for the curtain call. And the actor will stand up out of the wheelchair and take a bow, and suddenly everything that has come before has just been erased. The audience is let off the hook. Suddenly this isn’t social history; this is just artifice. Whereas when the lights come up and there is someone who is still sitting, and they take their bow in the wheelchair, it helps the audience understand this is bigger than the topic of a play. This is part of a movement. This is part of social history.
NUSSBAUM: Well, that’s a tricky one, because a play is artifice. But I tend to agree with you, strangely enough. When I read non-disabled actors for roles that are written for characters that have disabilities, as actors, they simply cannot let themselves get inside the character at all. There’s always this little distance and a little bit of “uh-oh.” There’s always that desire of the able-bodied to understand the experience of disability in its simplest way, and to sentimentalize, to cheapen it.
WADE: I’ve found that non-disabled actors think that disability is the character [general assent]. That’s what they’re busy paying attention to playing. So all of the attention and the emotion goes into having their head postured right, or their wrist lax, or whatever. It’s playing a mannerism rather than playing a human being. To some extent, that’s like a white guy putting on blackface. It is just as offensive.
LIPKIN: I agree, and I think that part of the issue is that non-disabled actors are operating from both a place of resistance and of fear.
SANDAHL: Another dimension is that able-bodied actors have a fascination with disability, seeing it as a kind of virtuoso performance that they can add to their résumé [laughter]. When these able-bodied actors are playing characters with disabilities, their bodies don’t look disabled. Our bodies aren’t always proportioned right. Our feet might be curved. There’re just things about our bodies that challenge all kinds of aesthetics about what bodies are appropriate to represent. But when you have actual people with disabilities, with actual disabled bodies–that’s what adds that other layer that I was talking about before that challenges the aesthetics of who can represent.
TOLAN: What about disabled actors playing non-disabled roles?
MANNING: I’ve played sighted characters before. As long as you can prove that it’s do-able: That’s part of the deal–to prove to the casting people that you can.
CURRY: I have a lot of problems with the disabled playing able-bodied roles. We need to be very clear about exactly what we’re talking about. In the realm of a disabled person playing the role of a mother or a father, employed or unemployed, a lover or a dentist, etc.–I’m very much in favor of that. But to put a hoop-skirt on a wheelchair or to pretend that something obvious does not exist–to me that demeans the celebration of the disability of the artist.
BELLUSO: I agree. I don’t think that we should represent disability on stage as if it doesn’t matter. I want to see a disabled Hamlet, of course. But I want the disability to be spoken to somehow through the play, even if it is Hamlet. I want to understand some sort of context of the disability, regardless if it’s a play about disability or not.
LEWIS: I recently saw a Hamlet in a wheelchair, and I’m sorry, I don’t remember the young man’s name, but he was terrific. But the producers’ explanation of the casting was the kind that I’m sure drives many people on this panel nuts–which is, “You don’t even notice he’s in a wheelchair!” They do the play in period, and they just work their little bodies off making sure there’s ramps on the stage so that Hamlet can ramp himself in. But he’s in a modern wheelchair that’s shining all over the set. So it was a great thing, but I agree: How do you integrate the disability so that it’s part of the world of the play? Susan and I have talked about who in Three Sisters Susan should play. It should be Masha; Masha is the queen, right? So Masha should be carried from room to room and put into the troika, and so on.
WADE: –Actors, to get better, need to play roles! If there aren’t “crippled” roles available, then they’re gonna have to play non-“crippled” roles to get experience acting.
TOLAN: Why identify oneself as a disabled theatre artist? Are there pros?and cons?
ERVIN: You guys have to teach me the art of getting in there [lots of laughter]. There would be a con only if the subject matter were somehow limited. And it’s not. I think you could write about this topic and this population forever and not begin to run out of stories. The only reason I think someone might have for not identifying themselves as disabled would be their own perception that it will somehow limit their marketability.
BELLUSO: I completely agree with Mike. What people don’t understand is that there is an entire movement of people out there who take pride in the identity of being disabled, who see it not just as an individual medical experience, an obstacle to overcome, but as a collective identity. I’m disabled, and it affects my life every day from the time I wake to the time I go to sleep. So it just seems nonsensical to me to not want to explore it.
LEWIS: There is a perception that quality art and disability cannot possibly go together. So of course those of us who want to be seen as serious artists will deny that label.
ERVIN: That’s right. There’s this horrible connotation and stigma out there, but I think the worst way to attack it is to use that as an excuse not to write about disabilities. That means things only get worse. I try and write about disability with authority, so as to take action against the stigma.
NUSSBAUM: It’s infuriating that as artists, we deal with discrimination to the extent that we can’t get our stuff done because our lives are perceived as being not applicable. But what can we do? I can’t even begin to figure out how the general public thinks about this stuff. And all any of us can do, really, is just whatever we’re good at, and hope that at some point, little by little, we’ll be able to chip away at this monolith. And a couple of generations from now, our voice will be out there.
LIPKIN: Partly this is an issue of getting a quantity of work out there, and if we rely strictly on conventional theatre organizations and theatre spaces, we’ll have very limited opportunities. I absolutely think that work by disabled artists should be in those spaces, but I think that it’s a mistake to rely too heavily on that route–we have to carry the work into communities as well. We at That Uppity Theatre recently performed for government office workers, 200 of them. I daresay that they would not have bought tickets to come see us on a Saturday night. But there they were, and it appeared to me they really enjoyed themselves. We also need to talk about what is exciting about the work. I find it very exciting to do work around disabilities because it offers a fresh approach to basic theatrical concerns such as time, space, movement and narrative.
BELLUSO: We need to sort of frame it in a way that says to the world, “This is what we are bringing to the table,” rather than penalizing the world for not letting us in sooner–which is not to say that we shouldn’t also point out injustice. But we have a perspective on society that is fresh and new.
WADE: We’re talking a lot about writing and trying to reach out, in some ways, to the mainstream audience. But the truth is, for most of my work, my primary audience is crippled. I want to write something that that lonely, isolated cripple that I was sees herself in. So I’ve always thought that who I write for first and foremost is other disabled people. And if able-bodied people come along for the ride, I think that’s fabulous.
MANNING: It’s something that happens in most sub-cultural art groups. There are certain female poets who write only for women. If men can get with it, then fine, but if they can’t, cool. Some black poets write about and for African-American experience, and don’t particularly care if there are white folks in the audience or not. I think the same thing applies for disability. Neither approach is right or wrong. For me, the activist aspect is to come forward with some good stuff. And whether your audience is disabled or able-bodied, white, black, green or blue, they come away altered.
TOLAN: If theatre is an exploration of what it is to be human, how does a disability perspective aid in that endeavor?
LEWIS: I think our theatre has a profound message at this time in history. The baby boomers are going to be really surprised as they age that their level of independence changes. Disabled people are going to be able to tell them how valuable human life is, maybe protect our health care system, protect the way we take care of each other. Disability at a fundamental level is about community and about how we need each other. I think we have profound insights on this that can stop this juggernaut towards a kind of Reagan-era greed that seems to be reappearing.
WADE: On a profound level, the acceptance of the so-called damaged body or the non-fully-functioning body is an acceptance of humanness.