I mean that as beautifully and lovingly as possible, of course. But I’m furious that I have to spend my time committing words to paper on this subject. I can’t believe that we are having the exact same conversation about disability and theatre we were having when I was graduating from college in 1989. My disabled family and I have been Oliver Twisting for way too long: “Please, guv’nor, may I have a role? What’s that? A potato in a sack that never speaks? Oh, guv’nor, thank you so very much! I’ve always wanted to play a speechless potato!”
We have tried asking nicely, explaining, reasoning, limning the problems in great detail. And yet it’s gotten us nowhere. So, since no one has yet tried telling you to go fuck yourselves, let me be the first.
This brings us to the inevitable disability apology, where I tell you that I don’t actually mean fuck you—I mean fuck the system we are all trapped in, the system that allows you to be cripp-ist with no repercussions. Not you—no, no never you, for you are pure of heart and good of intentions. This is the apology every disabled person makes to every Temporarily Able Bodied (TAB) person almost every day when we are given something—someone opening a door unasked, for example—we didn’t ask for and don’t want, and then must deal with your inevitable anger when we refuse it, because of course you meant well.
Fact #1: Your guilt will no longer rule my life.
In the last 20 years or so, the concept of “disability theatre” has begun to take hold in the American theatre. As a theatre worker with a disability, I’m offended by the very notion. First, I don’t wish to perform my identity for a living—but that’s not my primary issue with the notion of disability theatre. What frustrates me is the implicit promise that an organization such as Theater Breaking Through Barriers makes, and that is that it’s getting us a seat at the table. It’s not. It’s not even a seat at another table in the same restaurant. It’s a rickety seat at a bridge table in a struggling restaurant in a sketchy neighborhood. If you’ve ever turned down an offer to see a show by a disabled theatre group because you were sure it was going to be awful (and I know you have), you know exactly what I mean.
Also, there’s that truly cringeworthy phrase, the one that brings up every bravery trope ever: “Breaking Through Barriers.” Here’s what I see in my mind’s eye upon hearing it uttered:
Int. loft night: A man, alone, limping slowly across the room, the moonlight bouncing off his bald head. As he moves closer to the window, the light illuminates his purple unitard, the one with the iconic gold Lofstrom crutch drawing on the front.
Announcer (V/O) Can it be? Is it possible? It certainly looks—yes, yes, it’s CRIPMAN!
CRIPMAN slowly moves to the window, pushing it open. Taking his rocket-propelled Lofstrom pogocrutch from its place of honor on the windowsill, he shoves it hard into the floor as the rocket engines engage.
Ext. piazza night: CRIPMAN flying above the piazza. He eyeballs the distance and angle he’ll need to pull this off.
Ext. tall fence night: Landing hard just in front of the tall fence, the pogo crutch sends him high in the air, clearing the fence easily, as his dropfoot brings it down behind him.
Announcer (V/O) I believe I’ve never seen anything like this, but I believe… Cripman has broken down the barrier! The assembled throng erupts in cheers.
Two big questions:
1) Why is it my job to break down the barriers? Because I had a prenatal stroke, I’m now your guide on the existential suffering tour?
2) More to the point, if you want to do something truly useful, why not remove the barriers?
Just… remove… the… barriers…
I have a theory. You have a copious amount of guilt—don’t worry, I’m not going to absolve you of it, you’ve earned it—around the treatment of disabled people in the world at large and especially in your world, the theatre. You don’t want to interact with us in any meaningful sense, but you can’t let that be known, so you co-opted our movement under the guise of legitimizing it and built us a sandbox called “disability theatre.” You find it both upsetting and mystifying that we don’t stay in our place, properly grateful for everything you’ve given us. After all, a rickety chair is better than no chair at all! I hope I’m wrong. I truly do, but more and more I fear I’m right. If so, I have a three-part answer for you on behalf of the entire disability community.
1) I’m an adult and don’t need a sandbox. 2) Your guilt will not run my life. 3) Fuck you. Excelsior!
Fact #2: The time for incrementalism is over.
(In the style of Bye Bye Birdie)
Susie: Didja hear? Billy Badlegs got cast in that new show on Broadway!
Bobby: Really? Well, that big resident theatre is mounting Andrea Armless’s new work!
Bobby and Susie: (together) Yay! Inequality is over, forever!
Bullshit. Pure, unadulterated bullshit on multiple levels.
First, let’s get the casting argument out of the way. The idea that Richard III is still being played by actors without a physical disability is infuriating. I had a conversation on this topic once with a friend who said she was working with a really good actor and that she wanted to give him a meaty, challenging role; why not Richard III? When I recommended King Lear as arguably meatier and more challenging, my friend objected that that would be ridiculous, as this actor wasn’t nearly old enough for Lear. It was then that I heard a sudden whooshing sound as the entire concept went over her head.
But the problem with the casting argument is that casting is nowhere near the biggest problem. Casting is the window dressing. It’s the fake issue that’s used to set us against each other, to distract attention away from the larger, systemic problem. Even if disabled actors became international stars and sex symbols, even if TAB actors were voluntarily disabling themselves to get the best roles, in the larger picture it’s unimportant. To paraphrase the American wise man Bill Murray, it just wouldn’t matter.
Actors are football players, running the plays the way coach calls them. If that doesn’t happen, players are let go. The theatre is quite honest in its language regarding actors. The phrase “jobbed in” means exactly what it sounds like: You are there to do the job, and then you’re gone. Playwrights might have a bit more of a voice, but our friends Billy and Andrea have no ability to effect any meaningful systemic change whatsoever. That’s part of the problem. Until we look at the system as a whole, and have disabled artists in positions that afford them the opportunity to make root-level changes, Billy and Andrea are nothing more than tokens, public proof of your commitment to diversity in the shallowest of senses.
This decision by the power structure—to use disabled people as badges of tolerance, while giving them no power to address structural problems—has been a major tactical blunder on the part of the TAB community. Twenty-five years ago, the disability community might have been happy with a seat at the table. But as we’ve been marginalized and ignored, discontent has grown. We don’t want a seat at the table any more. We don’t even want the table. We want to run the restaurant. There will be no real change until we can put our hands on the machinery that builds disability theatre ghettos and permanently dismantle it. We need to control the means of production, in both the theatrical and the socioeconomic senses, for any true systemic change to occur. The more educated the TAB population becomes about these issues, while making no meaningful structural changes, the more upsetting the reality becomes.
It’s math time, folks. Visibly physically disabled people (not counting the blind or deaf) make up 10 percent of the population. There are approximately 50 major resident theatres in the U.S. that pay a full-time living wage and benefits. Those theatres have an average of four people on their top artistic staff: an artistic director, an associate artistic director, a literary manager, and a literary associate. That’s 50 x 4 = 200. For visibly physically disabled people to have a representative voice in American resident theatres, there should be 20 employees who fit that description: five artistic directors, five associate artistic directors, five literary managers, and five literary associates who fit the description. I have no doubt that the American resident theatre resoundingly fails this test.
Fact #3: Well-meaning never ends well.
Recently, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the idea of the “theatrical pipeline.” When that unfortunate comment was made regarding female playwrights—how they just aren’t in the “pipeline”—the immediate response showed up the utter sexism underlying that assumption.
The more I thought about it, though, the more obvious it became that disability theatre artists don’t have a pipeline; we have a cul-de-sac. It functions both literally (as a location physically isolated from the rest of the neighborhood) and figuratively (a situation that is impossible to escape). As the literal cul-de-sac was a milestone in (sub)urban planning, so is the figurative cul-de-sac a major achievement in social engineering. In this case, the engineers were well-meaning.
“Well-meaning” has a specific definition when applied to someone with a disability. It is a TAB person saying, in effect: “I have no belief in you whatsoever, no faith that you will ever achieve anything of importance, so I will not hold you to any standard, and whatever you do I will applaud.”
The Tale of Timmy Tapdance
Once upon a time, in a village not far from here, lived a boy named Timmy Tapdance. Everyone loved Timmy. He was kind, respectful, smart, funny, and a joy to be around. Timmy, as his name indicates, loved to tap dance. He would tap dance to school. He would tap dance to the general store. Why, Timmy would even tap dance to the library. The problem was that Timmy was the worst tap dancer anyone in the village had ever seen.
Were it anyone else, a village elder would have let Timmy know he had to find another profession. But Timmy, you see, was a very special snowflake; Timmy had cerebral palsy. Whether because they did not want to hurt his feelings or because they did not believe he could do any better, no one ever told Timmy that he was an awful tap dancer. So Timmy tap danced on. He tap danced at school assemblies, the annual village day celebration, and even the county fair. Every time Timmy performed in public, adults would come up to him and tell him how good he was. Eventually, Timmy began to believe it.
One day, word made it to the village that a theatre in the big city three hours away was looking for a tap dancer. Of course, Timmy begged and pleaded with his parents to take him to the audition. Though they knew in their hearts that Timmy would not get cast, his parents did not want to discourage him and so off they went. Needless to say, Timmy did not get cast. Saddened, but with his spirit unbroken, Timmy returned to his village.
Now, this should be the end of the story. Unfortunately, it’s not. Take Timmy Tapdance and multiply him by 10. Add in an equal number of Olivia Operas, Bobbi Ballets, and Samuel Shakespeares and have them all vie for jobs at major resident theatres. Assuming they are all of a similar talent level as our friend Timmy, over a number of years casting directors begin to develop a prejudice, based on experience, against actors with disabilities. Agents are reluctant to handle disabled performers they know will not be cast. The result is that those of us who are actually talented all too often get caught in the same net.
This patronizing of performers with disabilities has another insidious and damaging effect. Because the belief is that we can do no better, because we are allowed onstage only to assuage TAB people’s guilt about the historic treatment of people with disabilities, no one takes us seriously. We are reduced to brave, inspiring figures valued not for our talent but for our courage. As it is easier and less threatening to sit through 10 minutes of horrid dancing than it is to actually engage with a performer on a meaningful level, no professional tap dancer ever goes up to Timmy after a show and says, “Hey, what you were doing looked fun, but it wasn’t tap dance. Let me show you: This is called a shuffle-ball-change…Now you try it.” The most charitable explanation for why Timmy isn’t trained is that no one thinks he can learn.
In the long run, a lack of serious, rigorous training means that when an artistic director says they cannot find a disabled actor to play Richard III, they are often telling the unfortunate truth. But to pretend that a lack of training for the Timmys, Bobbis, Samuels, and Olivias of the world is simply based in neglect is to be more generous to TAB society than it deserves. Neglect can be addressed and fixed. I would like to believe the problem is rooted in simple neglect, or a lack of belief in our possibility for growth, but that ignores its systemic nature.
The creation of ghettos takes time, planning, and intentionality. And the ghettoization of disabled artists in the theatrical world serves the same purpose as the building of physical ghettos in the larger world: to hide away people you do not want to see under the rubric of help for the less fortunate. If Timmy was trained and worked on his craft, someday he might take the job of a TAB. Worse, a TAB dancer might have to share a Broadway stage with Timmy. If you can’t bear to talk to us honestly after a show in the ghetto you built for us, the prospect of working next to us daily must seem horrifying.
Fact #4: There is no true diversity without us.
While ours is the next great civil rights movement, in many ways it is still a nascent one. Even today, in some of the most progressive theatres in America, programs that purport to address issues of diversity in the American theatre focus almost exclusively on issues of cultural, racial, and gender diversity. I wish to make clear that I celebrate the existence of these programs and find them necessary and long overdue. But by not including disability as a category within a diversity initiative, you have effectively made disabled artists the most marginalized in all of theatre. Separate is never equal. If the last 50 years have taught us anything, that should be it. By eliminating the cul-de-sac that is disability theatre, by building roads through it so that it forms a dendritic street pattern (for you urban planners out there), you will have no place to hide us and be forced to deal with us on an equal footing.
Although the American vision is a myth of meritocracy, where the cream inevitably rises to the top, the reality is that we have programs for identifying and developing people with the talent to become extraordinary in their field. Major League Baseball has a program called RBI (Reviving Baseball in the Inner Cities) because they believe there is talent that is not being developed due to a lack of resources and access to training. They also understand that developing more and better baseball players will help their profession in the long run. The U.S. Olympics Committee (USOC) has training centers dedicated to improving and refining the techniques of already elite athletes. No programs like these, whether dedicated to instructing interested youth in the fundamentals of a craft or refining the talents of the elite, exist for theatre workers with disabilities.
I am challenging the following colleges and universities—Brown University, Yale University, NYU, the Juilliard School, Florida State University, the University of Minnesota, the University of Iowa, the University of Texas, the University of Washington, University of California–Berkeley, Stanford University, and California Institute of the Arts—to come together and form a consortium dedicated to identifying and developing disabled theatre artists with the goal of creating a new generation of leaders of the American theatre. As some of the colleges and universities with the largest endowments in the country will be involved in this project, it is not a question of finances. It is a question of desire and value. If the diversity that disabled artists would bring to the American theatre is something that is actually important to you, this is a program that can be instituted to ensure that we have a voice going forward. Because the colleges and universities named are scattered around the U.S., there can be regional training programs during the academic school year and an intensive in the summertime for the most promising candidates from each region. Such an intensive would be rotated between member schools. I would expect that a consortium could be organized and details ironed out by 2020, and the program initiated by 2025.
Of course, there is another way artists from minority groups achieve representation in the American theatre: By having people from their community assuming positions of leadership. In my life, I have been both the first disabled actor in the 40-year history of the Living Theatre and the first visibly physically disabled graduate student at what was then known as Stanford Drama. While this is lovely for my ego, it is also deeply and profoundly saddening. I believe myself to be talented, but there is no way I am the best disabled actor or theoretician of the last 50 years. The complete lack of representation of disabled artists in both the most politically radical theatre in America and one of the standard-bearers for the development of leading American theatre academics can be blamed only on a combination of social and personal prejudices. My people have been denied access to the very places that might groom them to become leaders in the American theatre. Whether it’s due to personal prejudice, institutional prejudice, lack of access, ghettoization, or lack of mentors no longer matters. What matters is that in allowing, even enforcing, this marginalization over the long term, the TAB theatrical community now has a large problem on their hands.
We will not be denied access to the corridors of power any longer. We demand to be let into the charmed circle. And until the disabled theatre worker pipeline I’ve outlined above is in place and producing artists with disabilities—playwrights, directors, actors, stage managers, and producers who will help comprise the next generation of American theatrical leadership—the powers that be will have to consider disabled theatre workers for positions of leadership in major regional theatres with the credentials and experience we’ve been able to gather outside the insulated pipeline.
While this is a less than ideal situation, we bear no responsibility for it. It has been created by you, the TAB theatre community, and you must deal with the choices you have made. To first deny us access to the programs that would grant us the credentials to work at a major regional theatre, then turn around and say we cannot be hired because we lack the very credentials we were denied access to, is to say the fix is in and the game is rigged. You must trust that our years of dealing with the bureaucracy of disability has served as preparation for handling bureaucracy at all levels. You must understand that years of dealing with people who were at best dismissive and at worst outright hostile to our presence has made us not only a good judge of character, but has honed and refined our ability to talk to and work with many different kinds of people. You must realize that for those of us who are visibly physically disabled, we have by default spent many years developing our minds, and are therefore capable of handling play reports, evaluations, and the process of season selection. You must risk, both with us and for us, because in doing so you make the American theatre stronger and more vital.
Fact #5: You have a choice: Join us or get the fuck out of our way.
We are coming. Thanks to the United States’s twin obsessions with war and gun rights, there are more disabled people being created every day. Our numbers are increasing exponentially.
I love and respect the American theatre and have no desire to destroy the institutional framework. Rather, I—and many like me—want in the front door. I want a position of power, to be able to make real and lasting changes. I think my years of work and my talents have earned me consideration for such a position. But there are many who are not as patient and do not have the respect for the resident theatre system that I have. If the gates of power are not soon opened to disabled theatre workers, the American theatre will have a much larger problem than someone telling you to go fuck yourself.
Earlier in this article I made a concrete proposal to improve the visibility of disabled theatre workers in America. But true change must happen both from without and from within. People often ask me what they can do. “How can I help?” (Worse yet, they often go ahead and “help” without having any idea what’s needed.) For all of you who ask, here is something you can do:
I would like to redefine disability, framing it not as a problem within the body of a person but within the body politic. I propose a new category of disability called cultural disability. Whether you are a prisoner, homeless, mentally ill, a victim of long-term systemic poverty, a person of color, a bullied teen—if you are a theatre worker who feels marginalized by society or do not possess the cultural capital to make your voice heard, you are welcome. Hop right on the bandwagon.
I’ve been fighting the dominant culture my whole life. If people want to come together for real, progressive change—to recognize that our oppressions might be different but the oppressors are the same—I’m willing to write, march, argue, protest, and generally agitate for progressive change for all. I only ask that you do one thing: Look in the mirror and say, “I am disabled.” Because we are all in danger, because we are all alone, we must put ourselves in the shoes of the most vulnerable.
If you won’t do that because a) you are in a position of power, and are afraid that more people empowering themselves would somehow disempower you, or b) you are part of a marginalized community and have been fighting for 25 years with limited success, yet still want to stay in your corner and fight only for your people, and are thus too afraid to risk coming together, even though it could be advantageous for all of us…
If, in short, you find yourself in one of these two groups, then I must say, as beautifully and lovingly as I possibly can: Fuck you.
Brad Rothbart has been a company member of the Living Theatre and is currently a freelance dramaturg and theorist in Flourtown, Pa. He can be reached at scrdchao@iCloud.com.
Barbara Romain currently serves as an art and design professor at Columbia College Hollywood, in Tarzana, Calif. She is legally blind.