Christopher G. Roberts – Producing Artistic Director, Steppingstone Theatre Company (2005-2006)
It is my belief that the entertainment industry within the realm of TV, film, and theatre, is currently in a state of artistic flux. That is to say that the industry is being forced to recognize the human, cultural, and artistic significance of those individuals who have been historically disenfranchised due to their not fitting into an “Industry Type.”
Before founding and becoming the artistic director of SteppingStone Theatre Company, (a New York City–based not-for-profit organization) I was both an actor and a teaching artist. Fresh out of grad school and one year into the new millennium, I found myself auditioning, booking, working, and finally—making a living at my craft. Nothing then was more satisfying to me than believing that it truly didn’t matter what color I was or that I had a visual impairment. All I knew was that it seemed as if I was being embraced by the industry and accepted for my differences. For why else, would I book principal roles on HBO’s OZ and Sex in the City, or national network commercials if I wasn’t indeed being brought into the industry’s fold? It did not matter that I was 6’4”, 250lbs., grey-eyed, blind, and black—Oh, how my eyes were wide shut then!
As an artist I was taught, learned, and then taught to others the importance of unearthing the truth. Universal truths, personal truths, and artistic truths. After leaving grad school, I was filled with warm fuzzies about “the business” and was prepared to share me and my craft with the world. What I didn’t know was that those warm fuzzies that I found security in would later give way to some harsh realities of “the business.” One of the major realities is based and revolves around the dollar.
“Talent,” much less talent with a disability, is the last component considered for any green-lighted project. What seems to be most important to the producing “powers that be” is the commercialibility of any entertainment endeavor. Simply put, it comes down to what the powers that be erroneously believe will only, make money. Unfortunately, there are those in the industry who are supremely ignorant to the vast untapped resources of disabled people who collectively have immense financial viability. What does the public want to see is a question best answered by truly holding the mirror up to nature, not what a select few think nature should be. What will the public pay to see? Perhaps, vibrant, unapologetically human stories. Stories that have remained untold and may not quite fit the cookie-cutter mold. Moreover, the current industry is answering its own questions by thinking it must create archetypes that they believe will secure popular and monetary success before securing artistic integrity. Alas, I was not armed with this vital information.
In fact, after having some success and booking a number of mainstream gigs, more and more auditions were offered to me. However something had changed, something was different. It seemed as if I had reached a glass ceiling in “the business.” Was my previous success a fluke, or was there a tangible reason why I wasn’t even getting callbacks for what were then high-profile auditions?
I was forced to question the industry’s acceptance and embracement of me. Were the reasons why I booked the roles I did based on superficial needs of the advertisers or individual shows? Was looking blind the only criteria for booking a particular gig? Was being the “big scary black dude” the perfect guy for the role? Did having talent matter? Was knowing and working on your craft enough? These unanswerable questions plagued me for a time.
On March 26, 2004, two days before my 32nd birthday, I had a very awakening audition. After giving what was, I thought, a solid reading for a pilot and being video taped, Liz, a casting director, (from a major New York City casting office) did something that was most unusual. I don’t know if it was that she felt a connection with me because we spoke as people, or that she felt sorry for me, or she had a minute of weakness, and chose to be open if only for a moment. But the information she shared with me forever changed my view and understanding about the industry.
As I sat in her chair, voices echoed in my head, “Man, I think you booked it. I think you booked it.” But nothing could have been further from the truth. She looked at me and said, “Chris, you’re one of the finest actors I saw today, if not the best. But this spot will not go to you.” She then went on to ask what was wrong with my eyes. After freely telling her why my eyes were grey and what visual limitations I had, she went on to tell me the following. “Chris, frankly, you look good on film, but people would have too many questions about your eyes and when you wear glasses you can’t even see your eyes.” After the moment hit me and the knot fell from my throat and began to fall deeper into my stomach, I asked, “Does it really matter?” With all sincerity she said, “For these producers, it does. You’re just not what they see when they think of a lead.” Momentarily shattered I said, “Thank you, I understand.” When really I didn’t and left. As if I needed to be constantly reminded of this new, painful realization, several days after that March afternoon, I continued to audition. I went on audition after audition, with a much keener understanding of how I was being perceived by the industry. I was able to detect behavioral patterns from those who were uncomfortable by my vision or the color of my eyes. If ignorance is bliss, then there are those in the industry who truly live in the Garden of Eden. I then realized that it perhaps wasn’t a personal affront to me, or that they didn’t like my skills as an actor, but rather they wanted what they thought would guarantee them a hit or some type of commercial success. And in their narrow uninformed view of the world, a person who is blind or with any disability could not help secure that kind of monetary success.
I tentatively shared my discovery with my agent, and told her flat out, “Not all blind people can play piano and sing like a bird.” I went on to say, “Please submit me for anything that is right for me, despite my vision.” Ann smiled and said, “Chris, you’re a sweetheart, but I’ll only submit your headshot for those projects where you can wear sunglasses or the role is exactly your type.” She went on to say, “Chris, it costs money to send these out. Let’s try to send it out to the ones you’ll have a chance at.” Sorely dissatisfied with that answer, I said, “Sure.” I knew then, that I would have to fearlessly forge my artistic career, in the fires of my sheer determination.
As I got on the elevator, I realized that the industry sees me in one particular light and accepts me only in certain conditions. It has become evident to me that for true diversity in the industry to occur it must be able and willing to accept its artists and their imperfections, for it is those imperfections that make us all human. The industry must be willing to represent the human experience in all its colors. Not only the ones we find comforting, but the ones that make us think, pause, and hesitate to speak. Furthermore, the industry has overlooked a huge cross-section of people in America. There are more than 55 million disabled individuals; this market has yet to be tapped. Additionally, time is ushering along one of the richest generations ever—“The Baby-Boomers”—into a place where, every day, more and more of them are finding themselves with age-related ailments that shift them into being a person with a disability. Those who are disabled directly reflect the values of the society in which they live. The industry has a responsibility not only to entertain, but to accurately and truthfully represent its populace.
Of course there are no easy answers to questions that have lingered in the entertainment industry for decades. But within recent years, there have been significant and slightly encouraging milestones that have taken place in the industry. Though encouraging, the industry cannot and must not rest on its laurels. Whether the Last Comic Standing has a disability, or an adored actor who has Parkinson’s is still working on television. Whether the lead for a romantic comedy is blind, or the popular show Law & Order: Criminal Intent hires a large number of actors who are Deaf, for a recent episode, there must be more. The industry has got to consistently go beyond an antiquated mindset of how it views people with disabilities. It is imperative that the industry overcome its ignorance and fear of those whom they do not know or understand. Whether they know it or not, we are them and they are us. There are more things that make us alike than make us different. Moreover, those differences should be celebrated and amplified, lifted up. Not put on the back shelf until it suits the purpose of a particular entertaining whim. The industry can retain artistic integrity by maintaining the intrinsic humanity of the art form. And in so doing, monetarily capitalize on the celebration of humanity in its varied forms.
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