Gregg Mozgala – Actor/Playwright (2005-2006)
-Experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want – Anonymous
Shortly after I moved to New York City to pursue acting, I was fortunate to find an agent interested in taking me on in a freelance capacity. I had been seen by several agents and industry professionals during my senior showcase at Boston University, but this was the first to take an interest in me despite—or maybe because of— my disability. Although not as good as signing directly with the agency, it was a step in the right direction, an avenue to legitimate, paying work. That spring the Berkshire Theatre Festival was auditioning for an upcoming production of This Is Our Youth by Kenneth Lonergan. I was a fan of the play and thought I was right for one of the leads. I decided to be proactive and call my agency to see if they would assist me in securing an audition. I explained the situation and the agent refused to entertain the idea, stating that I was wrong for the part because, “They were looking for normal guys.”
I have a mild form of cerebral palsy resulting in an inward rotation of my hips affecting my gait. I am not in a wheelchair, do not need crutches or canes, and if sitting in a chair or standing still one would not be able to tell that anything was physically wrong with me. Basically, I walk funny. This agent, however, who had seen me perform, even met me personally, was refusing me the chance to audition for an able-bodied role because I wasn’t normal. Subsequent conversations have reaffirmed his way of thinking and it became clear that he would only send me out for “appropriate roles,” i.e., crips and retards.
In the six years that I’ve been living in New York City, I’ve been auditioned for several characters with disabilities. Yet, I can count on one hand the number of times the “agent” has submitted me. I’ve found consistent work through relationships I’ve cultivated on various shows. Often, I’m randomly contacted by a company or casting director referred to me when looking for an actor with a disability. Now, you may be surprised to discover there are not many parts out there for twenty-something white males who walk funny. This is an image conscious industry after all, and it has been my experience that when people ask for an actor with a disability they expect the wheelchair, the missing limbs, the guide dog, the drool, and the spasms. I have not booked a single one of these jobs. I believe I haven’t been successful booking work at a high level, not due to lack of ambition or talent, but because I feel, that I am “not disabled enough.”
The following is a typical exchange:
Casting Director: …So you’re not in a wheelchair?
Casting Director: Or on crutches?
Casting: Oh, I see. Let me call you back.
(A few minutes go by)
Casting Director: Would you mind using a wheelchair?
Me: Not at all.
Casting Director: Great. Come on in and we’ll see what happens.
What happens is that the part goes to an actor who is deaf or hard of hearing, an actor who uses crutches or a wheelchair—actors with more severe, visible disabilities—or, as is more often the case, to able-bodied actors with more professional credits. This is an all-too-common occurrence. I do not believe that I or any other actor should get a part merely because he or she is disabled. I believe that the part should go to the best actor for the role. Currently, actors with disabilities do not have as many opportunities to audition for any role, much less high-visibility roles in front of key decision makers within the industry.
A few months ago when I got an email from an actor I was in a show with a few years back telling me that a large, well-known casting office based in New York City was looking for an actor with cerebral palsy who could portray a teenager for a feature film I was a little gun shy. The casting director was having trouble finding suitable actors to audition for the role. They wanted to cast appropriately and I fit the criteria. My friend passed on my name and told me that I should contact them for an audition.
After reading the script for the film, about two friends in a small southern town, one of which was in a wheelchair, I knew I couldn’t walk into the audition room and risk losing one more opportunity before I even opened my mouth to speak. I decided to crip it up. I borrowed a spare wheelchair from a friend and wheeled my way over to the casting office. I was the only disabled person in the room. I absorbed and internalized the usual looks from people, magnified ten-fold because of the chair. If people didn’t know how to respond to me before, they certainly were politely terrified by the presence of a real-live, visibly disabled person in their midst. Upon seeing me, the casting director quickly ducked into an associate’s office and whispered harshly, “Why didn’t anyone tell me that there would be someone in a fucking wheelchair here today!” Had anyone read this script?
My time came and I went in the audition room, slated my name, and read my sides. I thanked them for the opportunity and went on my way thinking that would be the end of it. A few weeks later I received a call back with the director who proceeded to ask me specific questions about my disability. With a slight panic, I realized these people had no idea that I could actually walk! I had to decide right then to either reveal my ruse or continue playing the part that I had created. I chose the latter for better or worse. A month went by and I was convinced that I was out of the running. I then got a call for a second call back with the director and the executive producer. This was actually working! Not only was I still in the running, I was a serious contender. The lead in the film had already been cast at this point; a blond-haired, blue-eyed, all-American looking young man plucked straight out of Central Casting. He introduced himself and exclaimed, “Cool, you brought your own chair.” I couldn’t tell what enraged me more, his easy good looks or obliviousness to the ignorance and prejudice his comment contained. The scene we were about to do required a heated exchange between the two friends, so I was able to bring the emotion into the work. I left feeling I gave one of the best auditions of my life.
I didn’t book the job. True to form, the part went to an able-bodied actor with more professional credits. I can’t help but wonder if my attempts to get the job by any means necessary backfired. Was it possible that I didn’t get cast because the director or producer thought of me as too disabled and didn’t want to risk the perceived expense or effort to deal with me on a film set? I’ll never know.
What I learned from this experience is that people in power in the industry, the ones who make decisions regarding casting and greenlighting of projects suffer from a lack of imagination. However, the lion’s share of the blame for this myopic world view should not fall on them, but on us. Disabled people have spent centuries allowing themselves to be defined by others. I know that we can’t wait for people’s perceptions to change. We have to actively change them.
I believe theatre offers the best venue for that to happen. Every other large minority group that has broken through to mainstream American culture; African Americans, Asian Americans, Gays and Lesbians, Women, Latinos, etc. all used theatre to challenge and change perceptions to carve out a place for themselves. Hollywood and major studios didn’t take notice until these people started showing up on stage. Why can’t we do the same? Why aren’t we doing the same? Where are our August Wilsons, Tony Kushners, Jose Riveras, and Wendy Wassersteins or Paula Vogels? Where are the plays that show disabled people living, loving, laughing, and struggling with the human experience? If we want our stories told, we have to tell them. We should be screaming at the top of our lungs, pounding our crutches against the ground, burning rubber with our wheelchairs to break down doors and remove barriers. We need to make our stories known. Offering incentives for studios to cast disabled actors, offering incentives for writers to educate themselves and write about people with disabilities is all well and good, but why not the people who have actually lived the experience? We need to cultivate talent from within and change the landscape with our own work, sweat, and imagination. Until we do, we’ll be waiting for someone else to tell us where we belong. Haven’t we waited long enough?
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