Pamela Sabaugh – Actor (2002)
As an actor, the kind of work I like to do is varied and runs the gamut. I love to do challenging work with scripts that have something to say, that are doing something interesting, that are intelligent and exciting and visceral. I love to chew on great language, dialogue; but I also love to be fully physically engaged. I love to sing and to dance. I love working with bold innovators, working on that which hasn’t been done, as well as upholding the traditions and ritual of theater. And I love being a professional working actor. This does not include being the occasional blind extra—to be told by Woody Allen, “you people just do what you normally do” as was quoted to me by a fellow blind actor, or to be corralled by Harmony Korin as one of the decorative blind freaks in his overly manipulated world that is supposed to be so much “edgy verity”, or to be the feisty blind babe who is a sitting duck who’ll either be murdered or used as some moral metaphor. Besides, because of the nature of my impairment I don’t appear to be visually impaired, so I am as much suited to playing sighted characters as blind ones. As for roles that are not so black and white as to be labeled either “sighted” or “blind”? Well, let’s not even talk about those in-betweens who are really more like myself because those roles do not exist. Unfortunately, playing the blind card does not really benefit me because the real decent blind roles are given to sighted actors. I would have to say, not much has changed in the last five years.
Those who do try to create inclusion are operating on small budgets for very specific projects. The producers of these projects are often organizations that work for the blind and disabled, the Jewish Guild, American Foundation, etc. They are sensitive and savvy enough to know they should seek out blind talent for their projects, if the character is disabled, find an actor with that disability. For instance the Jewish Guild put together a training video for in-home caregivers. I was called in to audition and ended up playing the role of a woman who suffered from a stroke, leaving her paralyzed on one side of her body and visually impaired. She also was written as a young feisty “woman of color”–Puerto Rican living in Harlem. Since the video was going to be seen and used by workers from all over the city, including young men and women of a similar background, it was very important I make her believable. So, let’s just say I had my work cut out for me. And, though I may have gotten an “in” because I am visually impaired, I had to work on it as an actor, applying my skill and expertise.
All this, however, was for a low paying industrial specifically dealing with the subject of disability. In general, these projects don’t usually cross over into the main stream of the broadcast and film industries. The companies that have the awareness and the sensitivities to be inclusive, as well as having the scripts that really call for that specific talent, are not the high rollers of the business. They hire professional production teams, the quality of the work is high and there is a budget. However the budget understandably is small. These are non-profits, foundations, groups and institutions serving an already marginalized community. There is very little cross over. This issue is why time and time again, though having done many of these specialized gigs, receiving top billing, budget for suits, good pay, etc., it does not lead to another gig and is barely a blip on the resume. Also, I in the end walk away without any union status.
The way I have come to see it so far is that there are two factors, attitude and practical application. I do believe I have seen a few seismic shifts in attitudes, as well as real desire on the part of many in the business to embrace new ideas. But the actual evolution must occur in the practical application of these bold ideas. It is when inclusion of diversity is no longer seen as bold and innovative that we can truly say progress is being made. One reason is budget, as I have mentioned above, the other being time. The turn over in this business is astounding. If you are called at 10 for a job you may have missed your chance by 11. In the commercial world especially this is simply the way it is. You go in, you read copy. You stand before the mike or the camera, you’re perhaps given a few adjustments, you’re thanked, you leave.
Where there is a larger budget there is less time. The size of the copy, or the sides varies. I am fortunate to be able to read very large print very slowly, but I cannot read a standard script. I must first lift the print from the copy then commit it to memory. Generally, there is one monitor signing the talent in and moving them in and out. Everyone is working on his or her piece. There is no one set up for me to approach and ask if they could throw this bit of copy on tape for me to listen to. By the time I can decipher the text with my magnifier or bring someone along to read it to me the five actors also competing for the role, have been able to spend far more time preparing for the audition. The extra time I may need to take this scavenger approach to auditioning often leaves me at a disadvantage. Agents who might send me out on these auditions know this. However they cannot get the material ahead of time because by the time they could realistically acquire it, the job is cast. Those people who know the extra work involved in carving out a new path are not able to take the time and effort to make it happen due to the fast pace the entertainment industry is structured around.
I believe there is an unfortunate overriding misconception based on the fear of “what the hell are we going to do with these folks?” It seems primitive, but I’ve seen it time and time again. This is an industry that operates in sort of a crisis management mode, there’s always a problem just around the corner to be solved. And the anticipatory anxiety of what it is to work with the disabled too often gets in the way of your really being seen—both literally and figuratively. If you are thought to be too much of a risk, you will really need the opportunity to prove yourself, soothe their fears, educate and illuminate. Unfortunately, in an audition setting you will rarely get such an opportunity. The truth is, if I anticipate needing something extra, I must make sure that it gets taken care of myself.
This happens to be my own personal saga, I realize, but I am always falling just short of one of those final link ups to “legitimacy”. And though I think it is not fair to blame it entirely — if at all– on exclusion, I do think in the grand scheme of things essential links are not formed. When it comes to the inclusion and true acceptance of disability in the professional acting arena, there still lay great chasms to be crossed.
On a more positive note, I don’t get this from other performers, unless their misconceptions are quickly proven to be wrong and I just never hear about it. I would say with theatre jobs, especially the more “Off Off” sort that do not have quite the same hierarchical screening structure, this problem doesn’t really exist. Sure I have auditioned for some directors that I have had to prove myself to—having to go above and beyond in order to tear apart their misconceptions and alter their crisis and fear driven thinking. But, even here, it becomes a non-issue very quickly. My presence can even sometimes boost moral or bring a cast closer together. For example, I may come in with the script memorize, due to necessity, which might inspire others to get off book sooner. If for some reason the cast needs to look out for me it is no different than the way all casts should be looking out for one another. That is simply being aware of one another, making sure contact is made and we’re all really listening and present.
So, the more that personal and direct contact can be established, better are the chances for real change to occur. I mean, it’s a known fact that “contacts” are really what does it in this business. But I believe in the case of a disabled artist, it is even more essential. Then, the contacts really have to be out there shooting their mouths off trying to dispel the fears and myths about disabled actors.
Yes, it does demand humanity in a business that is often dehumanizing. But again this is something that could and does benefit all artists and perhaps the quality of their work. Did you ever go into a really good shoe store? I never would have to announce to someone there, I need help finding the right style and size. There is always someone their taking care of those basic human needs specific to the product. I’m not asking for a pedicure, but a pair of shoes that is going to really suit me. This might seem like an odd analogy, but it’s about what can be done differently in the work place. Now, as a customer in a shoe store you have to be willing to pay for the quality service you receive. Therefore, when I come into work as an actor I am also willing to pay for it in terms of my hard work and doing whatever extra is perhaps needed to level the playing field for myself.
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