A one-legged actress onstage at the Goodman Theatre: Sounds crazy, no? But in fact, as the national chair of SAG-AFTRA Performers With Disabilities (PWD), a member of the joint AEA/Broadway League EEO committee, and official PWD Media Watchdog, I’ve seen the Goodman Theatre become a shining beacon of diversity for regional American theatre. And that includes performers with disabilities. Often, when we hear about diversity (i.e., the recent Oscars), disability is not included in the conversation, even though people with disabilities make up about 20 percent of our population, and anyone, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, age, or sexual preference, can become disabled at any given time.
Of my 52-year acting career, 34 years have been on one leg. I navigate New York City on one leg and crutches faster than most pedestrians. If I need two legs for a show, I use a prosthesis (only for the stage, though—I leave it in my dressing room when I go out into the world). I’ve fallen many times and gotten back up. But on Aug. 10, 2015, my crutch slipped on a piece of plastic trash on 42nd Street (right in front of “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not!”) and I broke my hand. In record time, I hopped across 8th Avenue to an urgent-care facility, where it was determined that I needed surgery. Fortunately, neighbors Nick Viselli and Ann Marie Morelli, who run Theatre Breaking Through Barriers, lent me a spare wheelchair.
A week later I got a call to audition for The Matchmaker at the Goodman Theatre. I told my agent I hadn’t yet tried to put on my prosthesis with only one non-dominant left hand. As it was, I couldn’t write, play piano, brush my teeth, walk on crutches, or basically do anything with my right hand. So I declined the audition.
A few days later, the Goodman asked for me again. Actors rarely get a second chance to audition. And this was the Goodman, a theatre any New York actor might give an arm and a leg to work for (in which case this was a discount, since I still had my right hand!). With my daughter as my literal bodyguard, I went. It was a delightful audition, partly because director Henry Wishcamper is so charming, but mainly because I had no hope of getting the job with only two functional limbs. But as I always tell young people in Boston, where I work with the phenomenal Urban Improv company: Talent has nothing to do with how many limbs you have. And these words proved true when I got the job! After working a wheelchair with one arm and one leg for 12 weeks, I was back on crutches and back in action.
I walked into the Goodman for the first time on Feb. 1, 2016. Electronic doors opened for me, and the elevator took me to the costume shop and rehearsal hall. The staff had asked me ahead of time what I needed. Henry had communicated with me for months on how we might use the advantages of my versatility to play roles on one leg, two legs, wheelchairs, crutches, and canes. (I once played Cats‘s Grizabella as a three-legged feline, dancing across the stage and singing “Memory.”) And now here I was, at this wonderful venue that welcomed me with open arms. My young friend and PWD colleague, Christopher Imbrosciano (an actor with cerebral palsy), had worked here and warned me that I would love it.
That week, the Goodman also connected me with Denise McGowan Tracy about doing my original solo musical, Still Standing: A Musical Survival Guide for Life’s Catastrophes, at Petterino’s, the restaurant adjacent to the theatre, on Mar. 22. My show won the United Solo Festival Audience Award in NYC, and my sister, Rachel Hollander, ASL-interprets the show. It’s important to me to expand audiences to include the Deaf community, and the Goodman provides captioned and audio described performances for deaf and blind audience members. We’re partners in inclusion.
Rehearsals for The Matchmaker were amazing, challenging, and efficiently run by a remarkable army of artistic and administrative staff. The talent in the room was abundant. I experimented with antique wheelchairs, canes, crutches, and the acting challenge of three different roles until Henry and I landed on the best choices. The fantastic cast was supportive throughout. Did I mention that one of my characters plays semi-classical piano for the cast to dance to? Another harrowing challenge!
A month later, in tech week, I observed that the spirit of collaboration and ensemble is very strong at the Goodman and in Chicago theatre in general. I attended performances of Another Word for Beauty, 2666, Chicago Shakespeare’s Othello, and Petterino’s Monday Night Live, and discovered a positive city where artists support each other and keep working. They are sensible, hardheaded Midwesterners, many with spouses, children, a sense of humor, and musical talents—this cast especially.
Finally, after five weeks of hard work, we had our first preview. We were still stumbling through set changes and theatrical moments and had no idea how the audience would respond—but I was glad to have a truly accessible dressing room on the stage level, and dressers and crew who worked hard to make the stage and wings safe not only for me but for everyone.
In my life and work, people often say I am an “inspiration” to them. The disability community is not fond of that word, for many reasons, one of which is that being an inspiration doesn’t seem to lead to paid employment. But as I look around this theatre, at the cast, the artistic, technical and administrative staff, I am inspired every day to do better work and to love what I do even more. It is my hope that my work will be the inspiration to others, not simply my disability, and that more theatres will see the talent and advantages that performers like me bring to the table.
Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker runs through April 10.