In my three decades of theatregoing, I’ve watched the state of diversifying representation in the predominantly white/nondisabled/cisgender nonprofit and commercial theatre field in the U.S. go through a series of roughly discernible stages. The most basic level of engagement was to produce plays about underrepresented or marginalized folks, which didn’t always involve hiring writers or directors from those communities but more or less went hand in hand with the employment of performers from those communities (though until fairly recently this varied widely depending on the community in question, cf. the shameful continued practices of brownface, yellowface, “cripping” up, etc.). The next level, not mutually exclusive with the first but a clear improvement over many well-intentioned but problematic earlier efforts, was the commissioning of and production of plays by authors from those communities, not only for the sake of greater storytelling authenticity but also as a form of reparations for decades, nay, centuries of exclusion.
The third level (but not the final level by a long shot, as I haven’t even mentioned boardroom or audience diversification) is one we seem to be in the midst of, and that is a heartening focus on equity and inclusion backstage. This is apparent in efforts on Broadway to nurture and mentor new, more diverse cohorts of producers and backstage workers. For the disability community, though, while there are positive signs like the Ford/Mellon Disability Futures to support theatre artists, there is as yet no formal effort of this kind to encourage or support disabled backstage and production workers.
Of course, as was very much the case with all the underrepresented communities I referenced above, theatre by, with, for, and about those communities has always been going on, most often in spite of indifference or open hostility from the dominant culture. There have always been disabled lighting designers, stage managers, etc., who have found creative workarounds in spaces not built for them, as well as doing more concerted advocacy to extend the rights laid out in the Americans with Disabilities Act from the front-of-house of most theatres (where, as any disabled theatregoer could tell you, there is still much work to do) to the backstage.
In the case of All of Me, a sharp, sexy new romcom now at Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Mass., through Oct. 9, the representation isn’t just onstage, in the persons of Madison Ferris and Danny Gomez, who both use wheelchairs in real life, as do their characters, but backstage as well: The show’s assistant stage manager, assistant sound designer, lighting designer, and costume designer all have disabilities. In talking to Ferris—best known to Broadway audiences for her moving turn as a visibly disabled Laura Wingfield in Sam Gold’s 2017 production of The Glass Menagerie—and to costume designer Sarah Le Feber, who is working on the play remotely from the West Coast, it was clear that the decision to staff the play with disabled folks, even ones an audience wouldn’t necessarily see, was about a deepened authenticity and identification.
Said Le Feber in a recent interview, “I don’t know if it was the kind of thing where they were like, ‘Do you know any disabled costume designers?’ or if it was, ‘Do you know any costume designers who are familiar with dressing disabled bodies?’ Either way, I am the answer to both of those questions.”
Le Feber detailed some of what she brings to the design conversation, in which even well-meaning nondisabled people “don’t know what they don’t know.” Designing flattering clothes for actors who are always seated, as wheelchair users are, is one obvious aesthetic factor, but there are other more practical matters to consider, particularly for folks who can’t feel the lower half of their bodies. “If they’re wearing jeans that are too stiff, that are rubbing behind their knees and causing a sore that they don’t even know is happening, they could have skin breakdown,” Le Feber explained. “These are the kinds of things that, myself living with a disability, I know without having to even think about it. But a person who had no experience with that wouldn’t know to even consider those questions.”
For Ferris, who like her character, Lucy, has muscular dystrophy, the camaraderie and shorthand that’s possible with so many other disabled folks around is not only a personal blessing, but something that can’t help but imbue the production with a cohesion audiences may sense without knowing its source.
“It’s funny, because those people existed all this time,” said Ferris on a break from rehearsal. “Sarah has been designing clothes for how long, and Caitlin Cafiero, our assistant sound designer, and Quinn O’Connor, our assistant stage manager—these people have been doing this for a minute. So it’s nice to get them all together in one room and make jokes and have conversations that we don’t normally get to have, even outside of the theatre.”
It struck me that Ferris, like a lot of disabled actors, must have spent a considerable amount of her career feeling somewhat isolated, given that most if not all disabled narratives tell the story of just one representative character, or include one as part of an ensemble, a phenomenon of which she said, “Tokenism can make it look like they are the poster child of that disability.” In All of Me, not only does she have Gomez to play off of as a fellow romantic lead, she has a backstage crew of varying disabilities and abilities, around whom she can feel, “‘Oh my God, I don’t have to explain this in great detail—a person working on this already knows what I’m about to say.’ That’s refreshing.”
But just as no person is a token, nor is anyone a monolith. Le Feber mentioned a case in which she assumed that Ferris couldn’t do a quick change into a formal dress, because that’s her own experience, until Ferris assured her that indeed she can. And while both Ferris and Gomez use wheelchairs, they are also performing some disabilities they don’t personally have. In Gomez’s case, his character, Alfonso, doesn’t have use of his arms, though Gomez does. More centrally, though, in the play’s central conceit, both characters use a text-to-speech Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) Device—i.e., a version of the Stephen Hawking computer voice, “only faster,” Ferris said—to communicate. So apart from a few moments of laughter, music, and a scene in which Lucy is without her AAC device, Ferris and Gomez sit and type their dialogue as a disembodied voice reads it out.
It’s a conceit that playwright Laura Winters has a lot of fun with, at one point having Lucy type out lyrics to Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back” as a perverse joke, only to be topped by Alfonso typing out a half-remembered rendition of Lizzo’s “Truth Hurts.” It’s a unique acting challenge, but it’s one Ferris has embraced. For one, she admitted that she may at some point in her life have to use an AAC device, so this performance counts as a form of practice. Even Lucy, she pointed out, is not entirely unable to use her vocal cords, but prefers speaking via AAC “because it gives her control over her comedic timing. Because it’s a progressive disease, she’s using it ahead of time to get used to it.”
Though All of Me centers two disabled characters and their mostly nondisabled families, it doesn’t read as uplift porn. As Ferris put it, “Characters with disabilities, usually their whole thing is their disability. But the fact is, they do fight with their parents, they do fall in love. They do have sexual chemistry.” She added, “Another element in the show is that there’s a unique, very juicy sex scene.” (Yes, indeed there is.)
For all its romantic comedy elements, Winters’s play also tackles economic class head-on, and the ways being disabled in the U.S. is a radically different if you have money and if you don’t. Among other ways, this class difference manifests in the fact that Alfonso, who works as a healthcare researcher, has a much more nuanced AAC voice, while Lucy, who is jobless and lives with her mom and sister, describes her AAC voice as “sounding like futuristic AI that waits until the end of the movie to lock you out of the spaceship.”
As you may be able to tell, Winters’s play wrings humor from serious topics (as well as lighter ones, including a male sidekick who does odd jobs for Task Rabbit when he’s not gambling “professionally”). But for Le Feber, even with its lighter touches, All of Me packs a punch.
“Laura sent me the script and I didn’t get back to her right away, and I felt awful about it,” Le Feber recalled. “The reason was because it hit me on a really emotional level, and I wasn’t expecting that. I’ve been disabled for 21 years; it’s my life. I’m used to it. It’s like, I don’t even think about the wheelchair most of the days. But reading the play, I’m like: If it’s gonna affect me this much, I can’t imagine what it would be like to be the audience.”
When the play’s director, Ashley Brooke Monroe, reached out to Le Feber after not hearing back for a while, the designer apologized profusely and explained she’d just been “soaking in the play” and unable to respond. “Ashley was like, ‘That’s the best reason for not getting back to someone.’”
Getting the gig was especially meaningful, Le Feber said. “I would say that most of the work I’ve done has been in spite of my disability. This is the first project that I’ve done because of my disability. And I think it’s fantastic to have this opportunity to say, not only did I get my Masters at UCLA, and I have this résumé full of ideas and things I’ve created—not only am I a talented and capable costume designer, I am also the person that has a special set of knowledge for this production.”
As for the decision to do the costumes remotely rather than travel to New England, Le Feber credited the heyday of pandemic Zoom theatre with proving it could be done. “During 2020, I designed two whole plays where I never met the actors—the lighting designer, the set designer, all of us did it from home, and we shipped cameras to the actors and they recorded themselves from home. It worked. So I think we can do this.”
In a piece in our special 2021 issue on Disability and Theatre, Michael Maag, resident lighting designer at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, called this “the disabled mindset: coming up with creative solutions when we have an impediment or an obstacle. We’ve found that when we include others, things get better for all, and the art gets better too.”
Rob Weinert-Kendt (he/him) is editor-in-chief of American Theatre. firstname.lastname@example.org
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