In 2015, the Lark in New York City held a convening, cohosted with the Apothetae, a theatre company dedicated to telling stories about disability. The gathering was called to discuss the representation of disability onstage and the dearth of artists of disabilities working in the theatre. Coordinators expected 15 people, and more than 60 showed up. The following year the National Endowment for the Arts held a similar convening for Deaf artists.
Apothetae artistic director Gregg Mozgala was present at both convenings, and though there was little overlap among the attendees at those gatherings, he noticed that “the same three needs were expressed verbatim” from both Deaf artists and artists with disabilities: “We need to convene, or convene more, we need more opportunities, and we need to tell our own stories.”
Thus were the seeds of the Apothetae and Lark Initiative planted. This month, both organizations unveiled the Apothetae at Lark Fellowship, which will give one writer with a disability a two-year fellowship, including a $40,000 cash prize, an additional $5,000 for project-related expenses, and a $10,000 production enhancement fund. The fellowship application is due June 15. The initiative’s rationale is simple, as Mogzala says: “We should be telling our own stories. We should be exploring questions on our own, and we should be telling people how to see us.”
In our current culture, though one in five Americans has a disability, mainstream representations of disability are still rare (and characters with disabilities are typically portrayed by actors without disabilities). Mozgala considers something like the Lark/Apothetae Initiative an essential ingredient in pulling those experiences out of the shadows. That was why he created his theatre company in the first place, naming it with the Greek word for “the place of exposure.” This was not a healthy kind of exposure, though: Apothetae was the name for the infamous chasm into which ancient Spartans threw infants with deformities and disabilities.
“I started the company in 2012, because I wasn’t seeing my experience reflected back to me in a major way,” says Mozgala, who was born with cerebral palsy. For him, theatrical representations of disability tend to fall into the following stereotypes: “triumphing over adversity, death with dignity, and sort of being an inspiration.”
That is why the initiative is not just a writing fellowship. It’s designed to generate work from disabled artists about the disabled experience through two other components. “The second piece, which we think is just as important, is a continuing schedule of convenings so that that conversation doesn’t dissipate,” explains Lloyd Suh, director of artistic programs at the Lark. Those convenings would be for all kinds of disabled artists. In addition, the Lark also plans to host workshops for disabled writers. And though the fellowship is only for one writer, three finalists will each receive $5,000 apiece.
Through these explorations, Mozgala hopes to make it clear that there’s a whole world of stories out there that need to be presented.
“Disability crosses all class, creed, socioeconomic status,” explains Mozgala. “My experience is very different from someone who has vision impairment, PTSD—it’s incredibly diffuse. That’s very interesting to me, and I think that’s worthy of exploration.” He continues, analogizing the program to others designed to nurture writers of other underrepresented populations, “It’s to have the disabled experience, to give it space to be explored on the same level, with the same rigor and attention, as the experience of individuals from other communities.”
The Lark has several such programs for targeted populations: a fellowship for Middle-Eastern writers, a fellowship for female writers. “It’s not enough to say it’s open for everybody,” explains Suh. “Sometimes we have to create opportunities that are specifically designed for a particular cultural conversation that we feel is urgent.”
The fellowship and gatherings are also national in scope; fellowship applicants and workshop participants do not have to live in New York City to be considered. “We’ve had virtual convenings,” says Suh. “If we select a fellow who can’t participate in a year-long writers’ group program, then we’ll find opportunities for them to have quicker retreats, so we’ll provide them with travel and housing to participate in a week-long, two-week-long things.”
One point of the initiative is to see who is out there and how they can be fostered. Mozgala admits that he’s not aware of many writers with disabilities. “The biggest challenge is, I think, how many disabled writers can you name?” he posits. “I don’t know where they are.”
But he’s confident that there are artists who can benefit from the opportunity.
“Let’s shoot up a flare to see who‘s there. You present this opportunity and see who comes toward it. The talent needs to be developed and cultivated, from an acting standpoint, a writing standpoint, administratively—all aspects.”