This piece is one in a series on disability and theatre. If you would like to recommend a theatre artist for a future Role Call, you can fill out our open Google Form here.
Abbey Joan Burgess (she/her)
Profession: Director and playwright
Hometown and current home: Glen Ellyn, Ill.
Known for: Burgess’s credits include directing Woman and Scarecrow; So, I Killed a Few People; Next to Normal; At the Table; Expecting Isabel; and Water by the Spoonful at Yale University. She is also an alum of the National Theatre Institute’s directing intensive, a 2020-21 Wingspace Theatrical Design mentee, and a 2019-20 McCarter Theatre directing/producing apprentice. A Yale University graduate, Burgess was the Yale Drama Coalition president from 2017 to 2019.
What she’s working on: Alongside Cinthia Chen, Burgess is creating an interactive adventure theatrical website experience exploring the ideas of underrepresented intimacy and the risk of allowing oneself to be truly seen. The project, conceptually inspired by Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House, blends cinema and theatre, allowing audiences to choose their own path through a series of 10 different stories focused on underrepresented experiences and bodies. She is also designing a concept for a one-person show aimed at revealing hidden depths through an online medium.
What makes her special: “Abbey seems driven by an insatiable drive to create work that reflects the incredible intersectionality and dynamisms of our society,” said Gregg Mozgala, an actor who also serves as artistic director of the Apothetae theatre company, who was introduced to Burgess through a mutual friend. “Her intellectual curiosity is backed up by a professional rigor and focus on work that seeks to crack open the underbelly of our shared humanity.”
Creating true access: For theatre to truly be open to all, Burgess feels, work has to be done to solve socioeconomic barriers for audiences and make room for varying levels of education. “We need to make theatre that is inclusive, equitable, anti-racist, and accessible for everyone,” Burgess said, “to hold ourselves accountable to current systems of oppression and work to be better. Only then can we create a communal experience of stories that have long gone untold, that challenges audience expectations, and redefines what a ‘normal’ body looks like using proper representation.”
Annie Wiegand (she/her)
Profession: Lighting designer
Hometown: Des Moines, Iowa
Current home: New York City
Known for: She’s the first (“and maybe only,” she said) professional Deaf lighting designer for theatre and live entertainment in the U.S. “I am also a queer woman, so my intersectionality is very much the minority in the very hearing- and male-dominated lighting industry.” Her biggest obstacle, she added, has been that most communication backstage “happens through headsets that we wear and speak into, which isn’t wholly possible for me.” Thanks to supportive colleagues, she’s racked up impressive credits, including Speakeasy Stage Company’s The Bridges of Madison County and Eclipsed at Milwaukee Rep. She also has a Tony nom on her résumé: She was second assistant lighting designer to Ben Stanton on the Deaf/hearing 2015 Broadway revival of Spring Awakening. “Part of my job was to help provide Ben with the perspective of a Deaf individual, and being able to share the same lighting language enriched the lighting design of the production as a whole.”
What she’s working on: While she waits for theatre jobs to come back post-pandemic, she has been teaching students virtually through the Theatre and Dance Program at Gallaudet University, the world’s only university for the Deaf in the world, intent on “passing on the love of theatre to those students, even in these strange, virtual times.” She’s also been continuing her advocacy for theatres to include accessibility in their operating budgets so that Deaf and disabled workers don’t have to negotiate their own working conditions piecemeal.
What makes her special: M. Bevin O’Gara, who directed Speakeasy’s Bridges, called Wiegand “one of my all-time favorite designers to work with…a consummate professional and a visionary artist. From moment one, she comes with a clear vision and a deep understanding of the text and how to enhance the story through light…She puts warmth onstage in her work, but also in how she works.”
See things differently: Wiegand likes to talk about “Deaf Gain,” a “reframing of Deafness that is perceived as a positive trait, rather than a negative trait,” and she embodies it as well as anyone. “As my sense of sight is much more heightened due to not being able to hear fully,” she explained, “I bring a different perspective to the table when I’m lighting a show. I see things differently than my peers, and can bring such valuable insight to the stories we are telling together onstage. I see my Deafness as an advantage and this allows me to be a stronger lighting designer.”
Bentley Heydt (he/him)
Profession: Lighting designer
Hometown: Born in Seoul, South Korea, raised in Miami, Okla.
Current home: New York City
Known for: Heydt is a lighting designer for musical theatre, theatre, dance, opera, and live events whose credits include designing for Anthony Ramos in concert at Rough Trade in Williamsburg, Cabaret at Ohio University, and GenZ On Fire: Loud and Clear with Royal Family Productions.
What he’s working on: Heydt is a member of the 2021 Great Plains Theatre Conference design wing cohort, which chooses five emerging designers to attend the conference in an exploration involving research, installation, and a deep immersion.
What makes him special: Austin Oliver, a theatre educator who attended undergrad with Heydt at the University of Central Oklahoma, called Heydt a “one-of-a-kind theatre practitioner. Bentley has a true passion for theatre as a whole and finds beauty in any level of show.” Oliver also praised Heydt’s professionalism, as well as his work despite the pandemic to “provide consultation for those he can. Bentley is a truly amazing individual.”
Becoming an inspiration: Heydt points to Natasha Katz’s 2015 design for An American in Paris as a moment that changed his life and let him know that lighting was what he wanted to do in his career. “Watching the lighting supporting the choreography and the music was harmonious,” said Heydt. “I hope that I can leave an imprint that will inspire future generations of disabled artists to strive for their goals and push through the resistance that they will encounter because they want to—because they have the choice and the option to like any other theatre practitioner.”
Carrie Sandahl (she/her)
Profession: Professor and arts activator
Hometown: Born in Las Cruses, N.M., raised in Hood River, Ore.
Current home: Oak Park, Ill.
Known for: Sandahl is a professor in the department of disability and human development at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), director of UIC’s 3Arts Residency Fellowship, and director of Chicago’s Bodies of Work: A Network of Disability Art and Culture, a network of artists and organizations generating work that illuminates the disability experience in new and unexpected ways. She also recently collaborated on Code of the Freaks, a documentary about Hollywood representation of disability.
What she’s working on: Sandahl’s creative and scholarly focus is on developing disability aesthetics, a term that refers to the generative force of disabled bodies, minds, and senses to invigorate art forms. She wants to focus more on her writing in order to document the work being done in the disability art and culture movement, especially within theatre, dance, and performance.
What makes her special: Esther Grimm, executive director of 3Arts and co-creator of the 3Arts Residency Fellowship alongside Sandahl, called her colleague nothing short of a Chicago treasure. “Carrie’s support of Deaf and disabled artists has helped open new and needed professional development channels while centering disability arts in our field’s equity efforts,” said Grimm. “She exemplifies the idea that one person can move mountains.”
Broader understanding, deeper support: A collaboration on a multi-year study funded by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) gave Sandahl a deeper, broader understanding of the barriers facing disabled theatre artists and their work, and provided the basis for her work for the last 11 years. “The study explained why there is such a series dearth of professionally trained Deaf and disabled artists,” Sandahl said, “due to barriers in education, inaccessible cultural institutions, ill-prepared teachers, lack of professional opportunities, social policies that prevent income generation, limited access health insurance, and systemic attitudinal oppression. We also learned that participating in disability art and culture communities is an effective means of support.”
Danielle Coles (she/her)
Profession: Actor and playwright
Hometown and current home: Brooklyn
Known for: Coles works with CO/LAB Theater Group, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing creative opportunities without limits and boundaries. She is a member of CO/LAB’s leadership program, which prepares CO/LAB actors to be mentors, leaders, and ambassadors for the program.
What she’s working on: Currently, Coles is honing her puppetry as well as a dance performance with EPIC Players, an inclusive company of neurotypical and neuro-diverse actors, designers, educators, and musicians. When responding to these questions, she was also in the midst of preparing for a mock interview for musical theatre.
What makes her special: “Danielle walks through each open door of opportunity and grows as an actor and artist with each new experience,” said CO/LAB executive director Becky Leifman, who also emphasized that Coles performs with hilarious timing and genuine sentimentality. “She is a passionate leader who is dedicated to ensuring that young actors with disabilities have opportunities that she did not.”
More than a hobby: Coles said she had always wanted to do theatre, but credits CO/LAB and working on a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream with Gregg Mozgala as the moments that inspired her to take the next step. “It inspired me, like, ‘Wow, this can actually be a real job!’” Coles said. “Then when I got involved with EPIC, it opened the doors for me to really think of this as more than a hobby. All of that really happened because of CO/LAB.”
Dewitt Burgess (he/him)
Profession: Actor, playwright, leader, self-advocate
Hometown: Bronx, N.Y.
Current home: Yonkers
Known for: Burgess is a member of CO/LAB’s leadership program, with CO/LAB show credits that include Hidden Away, The Best Thing in the World, Let’s Go: The Distance Diviners Musical, Camp CO/LAB, Dear Diary, and My Way or the Subway. He has also worked with Bluelaces Theater Company on a production of All Aboard!
What he’s working on: Through the spring, Burgess is working on playwriting with CO/LAB. He is also continuing as a member of CO/LAB:leaders, CO/LAB’s advocacy committee, and the task force for CO/LAB’s 10th year.
What makes him special: “He is versatile performer who has demonstrated immense leadership in the CO/LAB classroom, internal community, and beyond,” said CO/LAB executive director Becky Leifman. “We are so grateful for his artistic contributions to CO/LAB’s performances over the last nine years, and equally grateful for his willingness to serve on our advocacy committee and as a CO/LAB leader.
A life of performance: “I was born with a gift,” Burgess said, noting that his cousin on his father’s side was an actress with credits in New York and Canada. “I knew a lot of actors and actresses growing up and attended Broadway shows.” Before joining CO/LAB, Burgess performed in schools and churches as well as with Opening Act Theater Company, Stella Adler Studio, and the Pit Theater during his high school years.
Elbert (EJ) Joseph (they/them/he/his)
Profession: Actor, activist, speaker, ASL coach, ASL theatrical interpreter, director, and teaching artist
Current home: Boston
Known for: Joseph’s notable roles include Yeffirm in Uncle Vanya and Pink Lady Slipper in Taylor Mac’s The Lily’s Revenge at American Repertory Theatre. They have also performed at Paramount/Emerson Stage, Wheelock Family Theatre, and Central Square Theatre in Suzan Zeder’s Ware Trilogy (Mother Hicks, The Taste of Sunrise, and The Edge of Peace). Additional credits include Antigone at Flat Earth Theatre, Arcadia at Central Theatre, Arabian Nights at Central Square Theatre, and Parade at Moonbox Productions.
What they’re working on: Currently, Joseph is working on a production of The Tempest with Queen Mab Theatre in Massachusetts.
What makes them special: “The distinctions that have marginalized EJ from his hearing theatre peers have forged an artistic identity that is relentless in its pursuit of creative expression,” said Charles Baldwin, former director of marketing and operations for Wheelock Family Theatre. “Phoenix-like, he continues to rise from the ashes of cultural mishandling and communication assumptions as an artist, igniting the stage for the equitable inclusion of Deaf and disabled artistry.”
All for access: Joseph credits Wheelock Family Theatre for being truly welcoming in terms of reimagining productions within a world of inclusion and intersectionality. “I have always believed theatres should be access for all, all for access,” Joseph said. “We could be in a better place of inclusion and intersectionality. Nobody should be left out.”
Maggie Whittum (she/her)
Profession: Actor, producer, writer, and filmmaker
Hometown: Steamboat Springs, Colo.
Current home: Denver
Known for: Whittum has directed and produced plays, musicals, and improv comedy in festivals and venues in Asia, Scotland, and North America. She also performs with Denver’s Phamaly Theatre Company.
What she’s working on: The Great Now What is a documentary film, executive-produced by Whittum, about her life-shattering stroke in 2014 at the age of 33, after which she thought her career and life were over. The film examines the potency of the performing arts as an empowering and life-affirming force, as Whittum, with the fellowship of other disabled women, gets back onstage in front of an audience for the first time.
What makes her special: Playwright, director, and former McCarter Theatre Center artistic director Emily Mann met Whittum when she was an intern at the McCarter, where Whittum earned their Intern of the Year Award. “We all knew she had a glorious career ahead of her,” said Mann. “What Maggie has accomplished since her massive stroke inspires all who know her. She is an artist to her core.”
Understanding and compassion: Whittum’s film comes from too often seeing stories about disability mired in tragedy or that are overly inspirational. “The term ‘inspiration porn’ was coined to describe stories about disabled people ‘overcoming’ their circumstances,” said Whittum. “The Great Now What seeks to acknowledge the tragedy, and to bring inspiration, but ultimately to build understanding and compassion for people with disabilities, specifically women.”
Michelle Alexander (she/her)
Profession: Actress, voice artist
Current home: Round Rock, a suburb of Austin
Known for: Memorable stage credits include in Mary Poppins at ZACH Theatre, All Shook Up at Zilker Theatre, The Art of Remembering at Jewish Repertory Theatre, and Clybourne Park at Penfold Theatre Company. She added that “some of my best work to date was in Notes From the Field by Anna Deveare Smith,” also at ZACH.
What she’s working on: She’s started a podcast called Summaries with Choc!, which she calls “a rant cast featuring interviews with myself and local Austin legends discussing a variety of topics.” She’ll also be doing a reading on Zoom of Amina Henry’s Red Refrigerator, and she will appear soon on Colla Voce, a podcast by Adam Roberts.
What makes her special: Roberts, who runs the Austin-based disability theatre TILT Performance Group, called Alexander “a singular force” who has “illumined Central Texas’s stages with her power, grace, and wit for over a decade. True to form, a recent medical diagnosis and subsequent new life with a disability have only fueled Michelle’s passion as an advocate and artist. I couldn’t be prouder to call her my friend and colleague.”
Learning and giving back: First bitten by the theatre bug in middle school, Alexander has not only found a home in theatre—she’s also found an education. “Theatre is how I learned about all sorts of people, and people like me!” she enthused. “I was also informed of several historical events that shaped my growing up and they failed to put in history books.” It’s not one-way exchange, though; she feels has something to bring to the stage. As she puts it, “I believe that my Black voice wanted and did leave many impressions on the stage. I’m so thankful for theatre and look forward to doing more work in person again!”
Natasha Ofili (she/her)
Profession: Actress and writer
Hometown: Born in Hyattsville, Md., raised in Hollywood and Burbank, Calif.
Current home: Los Angeles
Known for: Ofili played Karen Vaughn, the principal of a Santa Barbara high school, on the first season of Netflix’s The Politician. She also appears as Hailey Cooper, Marvel’s first Black and Deaf character, in the video game Spider-Man: Miles Morales, in which she communicates by ASL.
What she’s working on: Ofili is currently working on her first play, The Window, and developing the short film The Multi, which she wrote, produced, and stars in.
What makes her special: After hosting a virtual reading of The Window at Deaf West Theatre, the theatre’s artistic director, David “DJ” Kurs, believes that Ofili represents a new generation of Deaf artistry. “Natasha has a refreshing and graceful spirit that makes everyone in the room eager to collaborate with her,” he said. “Her piece The Window puts aside the concept of a universal Deaf experience and instead brings to light the colliding interstices of identity and humanity that community members wrestle with.”
The new normal: With theatre looking forward to a post-COVID future, Ofili is hopeful that diverse casting will become the default, not the exception. “I look forward to a new form of theatre where authentic, empowering representation of Black and BIPOC characters and characters with disabilities becomes the new norm onstage,” she said. “My vision for theatre is to see more original stories written by BIPOC disabled individuals—stories that grasp the viewer’s mind, heart, and soul.”
Richard Costes (he/him)
Profession: Actor, director, disability advocate, and accessibility consultant
Hometown: Warren, Ohio
Current home: Chicago
Known for: Costes is currently serving on the board of the National Theatre for the Deaf as well as on the artists council for 3Arts. He regularly speaks on panels across the country on disability in theatre. As a performer, highlights include Mosquitoes at Steep Theatre, In the Blood at Red Tape Theatre, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Chicago Shakespeare Theater.
What he’s working on: With many projects on hiatus or cancelled because of the pandemic, Costes has been largely speaking on panels to educate people on the importance of accessibility in theatre. He is also in the middle of creating a one-man show, Red Peter, based on a Franz Kafka short story. Sometime next year, he is scheduled to direct Richard III with Chicago’s Babes With Blades Theatre Company.
What makes him special: “Richard is a fierce advocate for both D/deaf and disabled theatre artists and audiences,” said Carrie Sandahl who, along with Costes, was among the 20 artists awarded with unrestricted grants from 3Arts in 2019. “He is adamant about the importance of authentic representations of D/deaf, disabled, and people of color—especially children—to see their experiences reflected back to them.”
Removing economic barriers: Though there has been much written and discussed about the economic disparity of marginalized communities, Costes said he hasn’t seen enough being done in the theatre field to address it. “When people talk about the need for accessibility in theatre, they often forget to include economic accessibility in the conversation,” said Costes. “The disabled community and people of color are often among the lowest economic brackets in demographic breakdowns, which is yet another example of how ableism and white supremacy are inexorably tied together. My vision of an inclusive theatre is one that takes into consideration the high cost of working onstage or backstage, or seeing a show. Inclusion has to acknowledge the institution’s role in creating an arts model that many people are locked out of.”
Sarah J. Hom (she/her)
Profession: Arts administrator and occasional costume designer
Current home: New York City
Known for: Hom is Roundabout Theatre Company’s director of audience services, a role in which she is able to integrate her passion for inclusivity into initiatives that forward meaningful inclusion in theatre. This includes starting a series of relaxed performances, taking a leadership role in ongoing equity, diversity, and inclusion and anti-racism work, and collaborating with colleagues to ensure a welcoming audience experience. She is also a steering committee member for the Museum, Arts, and Culture Access Consortium.
What she’s working on: Hom is working on Roundabout’s upcoming Reverb Theatre Arts Festival in addition to pursuing her masters in disability studies and starting the early stages of other collaborations focused on promoting the inclusion of disabled artists and administrators in theatre.
What makes her special: Reverb Festival collaborating artist Regan Linton also lifted Hom’s efforts with the festival and company, calling her “instrumental in nudging Roundabout toward incorporating more disability-specific work and engagement.”
An inclusive home: For Hom, theatre has felt like home since her first job in the box office at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. “What keeps me motivated as a disabled person and a Chinese American is the hope that our industry will rise to the highs of humanity,” said Hom, “and that I can contribute my passion for inclusivity to make sure others who, like me, have felt that they are outsiders also find a home in the theatre.”
Sonya Rio-Glick (she/her)
Profession: Writer, choreographer, administrator, and access consultant
Hometown and current home: Albany, N.Y.
Known for: Rio-Glick is currently the co-executive director of Dance for All Bodies, a nonprofit providing accessible dance classes to people with and without disabilities. Prior to the pandemic, she produced and choreographed This Body’s Heart, a dance-theatre production sharing her experience with physical disability.
What she’s working on: Premiering virtually in May will be CoronaVox: Stories from the Front, a devised documentary theatre production from Phamaly Theatre Company in which writers like Rio-Glick tell the stories of frontline/essential workers. She is also a writer and actor in Journalists Theatre Company’s upcoming audio play, Sounds From an Empty City, which explores the intersections of artificial intelligence and disability.
What makes her special: “Sonya is the kind of person we will all be working for one day,” said Chloe Knight, who met Rio-Glick at Emerson College. Though Rio-Glick later transferred to SUNY Purchase, Knight watched as Rio-Glick, faced with a program that didn’t financially support her thesis project, “went out and fund-raised and found community partners, all while managing a company of artists and producing the show. I have no doubt Sonya will go on to rule the arts world.”
Intentional progress: Inspired by the principles of disability justice, a movement and practice founded by sick and disabled people of color, including many artists from Sins Invalid Performance Collective, Rio-Glick sees the pandemic as an opportunity for society as a whole to more intentionally cater to those who are ill, disabled, undocumented, lacking education, and otherwise marginalized. “I believe there are ways for theatre and dance processes to prioritize the comfort and well-being of those creating,” Rio-Glick said, “allowing for the expanded and empowered involvement of those with marginalized bodies.”
Tekki Lomnicki (she/her)
Profession: Director, producer, playwright, solo performer, and teaching artist
Hometown: Elmhurst, Ill.
Current home: Chicago
Known for: Lomnicki is the artistic director of Tellin’ Tales Theatre as well as an advertising copywriter. She is known for creating theatre workshops and performances for kids and adults with and without disabilities, focusing on their personal stories. Additionally, Lomnicki works with Six Stories Up, a mentorship program founded in 1998 that pairs six middle school students with six adult mentors, with and without disabilities, to write and perform a full-length show based on a particular theme.
What she’s working on: Though it can’t yet be staged because of the pandemic, Lomnicki is working on a musical, Always Greener, which spotlights the disability experience. In the meantime, Lomnicki said she’s producing a music video to continue to garner interest in the show.
What makes them special: Tellin’ Tales managing director Judy Bergh called Lomnicki both role model and catalyst for change who looks to influence positive changes in the vast expanse between people with disabilities and those without disabilities. “Tekki strategically leverages the arts, namely personal storytelling and theatre, to open up levels of communication between the two communities on stages throughout Chicago,” said Bergh. “She believes in the healing power of stories and has devoted her career to honing her abilities and helping others develop theirs to perform compelling stories in front of audiences.”
Combining worlds: As Lomnicki looks to the future of theatre, she hopes that theatre accepts more actors with disabilities into mainstream shows. “What I want to achieve in theatre is for the disabled and non-disabled worlds to connect through personal stories by realizing that we all experience the same pitfalls and emotions, though our bodies or minds may be different.” said Lomnicki. “I am adamant about including both worlds in everything I produce.”
William S. Yellow Robe Jr. (he/him)
Profession: Playwright, actor, director, maker of fry bread, devourer of fry bread
Hometown: Wolf Point, Mont., and born at the Poplar Indian Agency
Current home: Old Town, Maine
Known for: Recipient of a lifetime achievement award from the Native Writers’ Circle of the Americas, Yellow Robe recently published his third collection of his plays, Restless Spirits: Plays. He is also a member of Penumbra Theatre and the Ensemble Studio Theatre. Additionally, Yellow Robe has worked with New Native Theater, Muriel Tarrant, and Safe Harbors Indigenous Collective.
What he’s working on: Yellow Robe is currently recovering from what he referred to as a severe physical mishap, but he has upcoming Zoom readings with New York City’s American Indian Artists Inc. (AMERINDA) and the University of New Hampshire.
What makes him special: For director, playwright, and co-artistic director of Red Eagle Soaring Tara Moses, stumbling upon an anthology of Yellow Robe’s work changed her life and left her feeling less alone, having found a Native, disabled artist like herself. “His work is foundational within Native theatre,” said Moses, “and he is responsible for launching the careers of so many and inspiring young Native artists like myself while continuing to write stories, our stories, and bring them to the American theatre stage for the first time.”
A brilliant future: “When I began my journey in theatre, I was regarded as an anomaly,” said Yellow Robe, “being told many times that Indians can’t act, ‘can’t do theatre,’ ‘can’t write plays,’ ‘you look too dark.’ American theatre was not ready for Native tribal theatre. Like all things in America, everybody had a chance at living a dream, as long as others are forced to live the nightmare. The future of Native tribal theatre looks bright. We have more tribes represented and are taking steps to stop the further encroachment of ‘colonialism.’ So different from when I began. So many brilliant tribal Native artists. Such a brilliant future.”
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