Michael Lew – Playwright/Director (2005-2006)
“The Roosevelt Cousins, Thoroughly Sauced” is a historically inaccurate lark about FDR’s pre-presidential years at a polio clinic in Georgia. It’s a ten-minute play that just closed at Ensemble Studio Theatre last March as part of an evening of shorts called “Thicker than Water.” Though the play is almost wholly flippant, I am sincerely interested in FDR’s emotional state upon becoming disabled. I’ve tried to depict a broken but proud man, someone who declares that his best years are behind him. This is meant to come across ironically, of course, because the audience knows that in a few years FDR will leave the clinic, go on to become governor of New York, and will eventually gain the presidency. I’ve also tried to depict Eleanor as a strong woman who builds up her husband – someone who can take FDR from his drunk, self-pitying state and get him to play a sex game in which his wheelchair becomes a World War I French tank. It’s silly symbolism, granted, but I have tried to lace “Roosevelts” with a motif of empowerment.
I’d originally written the play for two actor friends – Kristen Harlow and Gregg Mozgala. Gregg has CP. He’s also one of my favorite actors and certainly one of the funniest people I know. In writing “Roosevelts,” I was inspired by Gregg and Kristen’s sense of humor and their aptitude for building off each other’s jokes, so much so that I wanted to build a play around them. Gregg’s disability didn’t influence my writing directly. I didn’t feel a burning need to write from a disabled person’s perspective, nor did I specifically write Gregg a disabled character simply because he’s disabled. My inspiration for the piece was a bit more freeform and a bit more about the essence of two actors whose talents I wanted to channel through my writing.
Generally, I don’t tend to write from the political perspective of deliberately trying to increase diversity onstage as an end in itself. It was not my intention to craft a play that depicted someone disabled just for the sake of dramatizing a disabled character. As a Chinese American writer, I often receive suggestions that I should be writing more Asian-centered plays. But despite those suggestions, I don’t aim to specifically write plays for characters who are Asian (or any ethnic minority) just for the sake of depicting diversity. Instead, I tend to follow stories that intrigue me or people who inspire me, and that process sometimes does lead to diversity albeit incidentally. I think it’s important to draw inspiration from as wide a group of people and situations as possible. So while I never have set out to write a “Chinese” play just for the sake of depicting Asianness onstage, my one-woman play Yit, Ngay (One, Two) does call for a Chinese actress. I’ve just finished a full-length called A Better Babylon that calls for two Asian actors, a Chicano woman, and a man who could be either black or Hispanic. I’m currently working on a two-man play about black comics. Even though I prioritize story in my writing, it seems that diversity is a necessary by-product of my interest in eclectic stories.
My work as a director is an entirely different story. While my plays don’t create diversity for the sake of diversity, in my directing I actively employ non-traditional casting, especially multi-ethnic casting. It seems to me that the playwrights being produced on mainstream stages are often white males, and that the casts being assembled to perform those plays are often all white actors. It’s been my experience that if a character’s ethnicity is not explicitly specified in a play, that role will invariably go to a white actor.
I once co-produced an evening of one-acts in which I was in charge of finding the playwrights and my co-producer was in charge of finding the directors. While the majority of the playwrights were non-white, the directors were all white. Moreover, with the exception of two actors whose ethnicity was requisite for the characters they’d be playing, the entire cast ended up being white. The performances went swimmingly, but I was discouraged by the ethnic uniformity of the cast and directors despite the varied ethnicities of the writers. So where in my writing I tend to abdicate the responsibility of increasing diversity for diversity’s sake, as a director I’ve grown more adamant about actively seeking out collaborators from wider backgrounds.
It’s a constant source of chagrin to me that there’s a pool of talented actors of color who never get major roles. These actors could easily be playing major roles as either ethnic characters or as characters whose ethnicity is unspecified. But without producers, casting directors, or directors who are particularly sensitive to the need for non-traditional casting, these actors don’t get the chance to showcase their talents. As a director I feel it’s my responsibility to get more artists of color produced (as actors, designers, stage managers, and playwrights). Based on this great experience with Gregg on “Roosevelts,” I feel an increased desire to find collaborators from the disabled community as well.
I can’t say why I’m more of an activist as a director than a writer. It seems like I’d be more apt to direct a play and cast Gregg in a role that doesn’t specifically call for a disabled actor… than I would be to write Gregg a role where he’s specifically playing someone disabled. With “Roosevelts” I suppose I’ve done both. He’s a disabled actor cast in a play that doesn’t specifically call for a disabled actor, and I did end up writing a character that’s disabled. Perhaps in both my roles – as a playwright or as a director – I have a sense that people’s stories are being told unequally and that people’s talents are being utilized inequitably. I’m sensitive to these imbalances, but my approach to that problem differs by discipline. As a writer, I’m pursuing unique stories over pursuing diversity as an end in itself, yet I’m trying to find stories that cover a wide range of experiences. As a director, I’m pursuing nontraditional casting as an end in itself, because there are too many artists of color and artists with disabilities whose talents are going untapped.
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